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A Fresh Look at Zoning Laws and Local Governance to Help Combat Urban Sprawl

Dec 12, 2017 | Environment

Too many cities in the country are impacted by uncontrolled urban sprawl. By driving only a few miles from once-booming city centers, one can see suburban schools that flourish, businesses that thrive, and restaurants, movie theaters and bars that entertain residents throughout the day and into the night. Typical growth radiates out from the city center, leaving behind poverty and blight.

Older inner cities were once vibrant communities that were home to millions of people from all socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds, making for a diverse population. Buses and trains moved people efficiently; public schools were situated in safe neighborhoods within walking distance for many students; and, more importantly, these schools were a diverse cross-section of the community that included different religions, social classes, cultures, and ethnic groups. Industry was located in industrial zones that were accessible by all in specified industrial zones.

So, what is the current problem? Zoning boards and city councils need to change because our zoning laws create inner city blight and socioeconomic segregation. Zoning becomes a mechanism for class segregation, resulting in inner city schools suffering and the squandering of land. To begin to move forward, we need to move away from the argument that property owners have the right to unencumbered use of their land in every circumstance. If this policy continues, we will have destroyed much of our land and resources. For zoning laws to be rewritten, local governments must be changed; governance of all communities must move to the county level and the county must cede to the state level regarding zoning. We need to shelve the practice that small cities have complete control of their school policies, zoning regulations, and taxes. This is simply not efficient. Current zoning laws work against economic efficiency and hinder development in a free economy.

Once governance is moved to the county level, local taxes will be sent to the zones that are nearest to the city centers. The pattern of urban sprawl dictates that there will inevitably be some people that continue to move to suburban areas; however, their taxes will go to the city centers where the money will be spent on infrastructure, schools, transportation, and other community needs to keep the city vibrant. Taxes can be lower in the zones nearest to the city centers, encouraging residents to either stay or move into those areas. This aims to curb previously uncontrolled growth and keep city centers vibrant.

We must take other steps to stem the flood of people leaving cities. Agricultural land must be protected to feed the people of our country and the world, and we cannot let hardworking American farmers fail due to the shortsighted needs of greedy developers. We cannot allow plows to be replaced by bulldozers to create yet another suburban neighborhood when there is plenty of livable space within urban areas. Industrial centers should move into old industrial centers, not take over agricultural land that could be used to feed the country’s citizens. Land not used for either industry or agriculture should go back to the federal or state government and revert to its pristine state.

To help localize the issue in Ohio, consider what happened when a new gas power plant was Approved. On September 17, 2015, a local public utilities group, the Ohio Power Board, authorized a private company, Clean Energy Future (http://cleanenergyfuturellc.com/) to construct an 800-megawatt natural-gas-fired power plant in Lordstown, Ohio. People were happy; local politicians and residents maintained it would bring jobs and clean energy to the area. While on its face, this new power plant sounded good for this small piece of land; however, is it good for the country, the environment, and the world?

Gas power plants are still contributing to CO2 emissions and hydraulic fracturing (or fracking) can contaminant ground water. To further exacerbate the damage to our environment and the inner cities, this gas-fueled power plant will be in an area that was previously agricultural and will help accelerate the social and economic decline of the adjacent two cities, Warren and Youngstown.

It is for reasons such as these that we need national and state zoning laws. We must halt the spread of unfettered urban sprawl and not leave the decision of where we can build to local zoning commissions. We need to invest in truly clean energy, new versions of the same plants that continue to pollute our precious natural resources.

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