Swelling Cities: Smart Move on Smart Growth

A new NAR service is helping arm REALTORS® for land-use battles.

January 1, 2001

Are proposals to restrict land use raising alarm bells in your area? You have someone to call.

With smart growth initiatives sprouting up in every part of the country, REALTORS® are relying on their state and local associations to jump into land-use fights and push for what’s best for their communities. That’s a tall order, but boards are finding it easier, since NAR expanded its popular land-use service last year.

The service, launched in early 1999, gives REALTOR® associations expert analyses of proposed rules or laws affecting local land-use policies. The analyses are provided by attorneys at Robinson & Cole LLP, Boston, a nationally recognized expert in land-use law. The firm has analyzed close to 140 proposals in two years.

Demand has been strong from day one, and that’s no surprise, says one NAR analyst. “This is really crunch time for a lot of local areas,” he says. “Growth measures are cropping up everywhere now.”

When NAR introduced the service, it was only for growth proposals that were formally under consideration. The service was expanded last year to allow Robinson & Cole to analyze draft proposals, improving REALTORS®’ ability to influence the debate before a proposal gets too far down the road toward passage.

The early analysis proved useful to REALTORS® in Onalaska, Wis., last year.

The City Council there wanted to impose a fee on homeowners in a new development to cover costs for parks throughout the city. Local REALTORS® saw it as an unfair burden on the new homeowners, says Tom Larson, director of land use and environmental affairs for the Wisconsin Association of REALTORS®.

The attorneys at Robinson & Cole turned around a report on the proposed fee within days, giving members of the local REALTOR® board arguments on why the fee would have been unfair on the basis of the way that new park fees had been handled in other jurisdictions.

“REALTORS® are always framing issues like impact fees in terms of private property rights, which is fine, but the Robinson & Cole analysis helped us go beyond that argument,” says Larson. “It gave us the background to show that this was a quality-of-life issue.”

The City Council listened to the REALTORS®and ended up adopting a modified version of the fee, which is being phased in next year.

More important, the action gave the local REALTOR® board confidence to get actively involved in local land-use debates, says Judy Carpenter, ABR®, CRS®, past president of the La Crosse Area REALTORS® Association, whose jurisdiction includes Onalaska.

“We made the local government aware that REALTORS® are monitoring what’s going on with growth proposals, and now it’s using us more as a resource, which is what we wanted,” says Carpenter, a practitioner with Gull Relocation, REALTORS®, in Onalaska.

Farther south, members of the Charleston (S.C.) Trident Association of REALTORS® are positioned to move decisively on a development ordinance proposed late last year by the area planning agency.

The ordinance would impose new rules for subdividing unincorporated parts of Charleston County. The proposed zones would create parcels requiring very low density housing, hike property taxes for rural property owners, and impose new road requirements.

On top of that, the 400-page proposal is almost unreadable in its complexity, making it virtually impossible for private citizens to give thoughtful feedback, says Mark Kearns, 2001 president of the Charleston Trident Association and president of Coleman & Kearns Appraisal Co.

“Given the scope and complexity of the proposal, what we really wanted from Robinson & Cole were talking points on the issues we were most concerned with,” says Kearns. “We used what they gave us as a framework for developing our own arguments.”

Development of the ordinance will continue into 2001, providing more opportunity for intervention in the process, says Kearns.

Cliff Goodin, past president of the Arkansas REALTORS® Association, is using analyses from Robinson & Cole to present the REALTOR® point of view as the local planning agency in Russellville drafts a rewrite of the city’s land-use plan.

This is a first for Goodin, who says he hesitated in past planning commission meetings to oppose proposals: “I never thought I was in a position to address their proposals.”

Now Goodin is talking to planning commission members one-on-one, using alternatives suggested by Robinson & Cole. “I’m dealing with the rewrite provision by provision,” he says. “I give them examples of where I think the regulations will stunt growth.”

Robert Freedman

Robert Freedman is the former director of multimedia communications at NAR.

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