Environmentalists’ frontal assault on suburbia

Originally posted by me elsewhere 10/31/2010

In addressing the U.S. Conference of Mayors this past January, President Obama laid out his vision for developing your local community, specifically local planning, zoning, things of that nature. You might think that in the divide between federal, state, and local powers surely local zoning and development are… well, local. But the President doesn’t share your parochial view. As he explained to the mayors in attendance, he believes the federal government needs to…

focus on creating more livable and environmentally sustainable communities. Because when it comes to development, it’s time to throw out old policies that encouraged sprawl and congestion…

Whenever you hear the word “sprawl”, it means “suburbs”, and whenever you hear “congestion” it means “commuters driving to work”.

Under the president’s leadership, an unholy alliance of three federal bureaucracies is braced to bring sustainable living to your community. The key bureaucracies are the Department of Transportation (DOT), the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and together they call themselves the Partnership for Sustainable Communities. The president further explained to the mayors in attendance that sustainable living will be implemented federally by building upon the “successful” TIGER discretionary grants program. When I did further research into this program, I learned that TIGER was involved in Detroit’s light rail boondoggle that Zoe Bookman blogged about earlier. As she documented, a half billion (with a “b”) dollars is being spent there to develop light rail on an avenue that is nearly empty during rush hour (check out the embedded video which shows rush hour). As the president sees it, the TIGER discretionary grants program is just the beginning.

But for the federal government to meddle in local planning on a grand scale, the president needs money, lots and lots of money. This is where Senator Chris Dodd comes in, the same Chris Dodd who blocked any reform of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, allowing them to spew out one trillion (with a “t”) dollars in subprime mortgages between 2005 and 2007. Chris Dodd announced In January that he would not seek re-election this year (some say because news that he received $800,000 in cut-rate mortgages from Countrywide Mortgage had tainted him with the electorate). However, in March Dodd announced:

I only have about eight to 10 months. My goal is to see the Livable Communities Act become law before I retire.

The Livable Communities Act will fund the federal Partnership for Sustainable Communities to the tune of $4 billion over 4 years. While addressing his fellow senators, Dodd stated that one reason to enact the Livable Communities Act is because:

Several new studies have also shown that homes in ‘location-efficient’ communities are less likely to be at risk of foreclosure due to lower transportation costs.

Yes, that’s right; Dodd has the gall to express concern about people being foreclosed upon because they are spending so much on gas. It’s as if he thinks everyone is unaware that the federal Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) pressured lenders into extending mortgages to people who couldn’t afford them. If I had to choose between attributing the foreclosure crisis to federal policy or gas money, I’m going to fault the federal policy.

In a nutshell, here’s the utopian ideal behind the Livable Communities Act. The federal government envisions us living in tightly packed communities. There will no longer be poor neighborhoods, middle class neighborhoods and wealthy neighborhoods; we’ll all live in the same community. Furthermore the businesses, shops, grocery stores and restaurants will be conveniently near our homes. Even if you live in a two-income family, the federal government has confidence that both of you will be able to live where you work. Since we will work in the same community where we live, we’ll all commute to work by walking, biking or taking public transportation. And in these utopian communities, both home ownership and rent will be affordable (the federal goverment will determine what affordable means, as seen in this example: Livable Communities Act – Ownership and Rent Affordability Limits 2010).

And guess who is going to be in charge of this program? While addressing a non-governmental body known as the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU), Shaun Donovan (the Secretary of HUD) gushed:

And I’m proud to say that this office is led by one of your own, Shelley Poticha. Shelley’s not on the outside anymore trying to influence government policy, but very much on the inside making that policy.

As a taxpayer, I can’t say how happy I am to learn that a former lobbyist has been put in charge of the agency whose policy she had previously hoped to influence. Who says government is inefficient? The middle man has been completely eliminated.

The HUD secretary goes on to say that HUD has adopted the LEED-ND system to quantify each community’s livable/sustainable qualities. LEED stands for “Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design” (when the ND is tagged on it stands for “neighborhood development”). According to Wikipedia LEED is an:

… internationally recognized green building certification system, providing third-party verification that a building or community was designed and built using strategies intended to improve performance in metrics such as energy savings, water efficiency, CO2 emissions reduction, improved indoor environmental quality, and stewardship of resources and sensitivity to their impacts.

Just to give you a sense of what LEED is about, the Wikipedia article adds that in the future LEED is expected to

include a requirement for a carbon footprint (carbon building print) and a significant reduction of green-house gasses beyond a baseline level. The reduction in carbon dioxide must be measured based on the direct and indirect carbon dioxide and equivalent reductions. These include emissions related to the consumption of grid delivered electricity, on-site combustion of fossil fuels, and fugitive refrigerant emissions.

Apparently the HUD secretary is a true believer in the “settled science” of global warming climate change, since at the same address to the CNU she added:

…the global threat of climate change is very real.

On August 3rd of this year, the Senate version of the Livable Communities Act (S. 1619) moved from the Senate Banking Committee to the floor by a 12-10 party line vote. The House version is known as H.R. 4690; Both the Senate and the lame duck session of the House will be voting on it later this year.

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has been one of the leading opponents of the Livable Communities Act, saying:

Local land use and zoning has always been the responsibility of local and State governments–to coordinate transportation and zoning projects, maximizing economic growth and serving community needs. But the administration’s ‘livable communities’ initiative ignores this jurisdictional boundary by leveraging grant money to gain heavy influence over local planning decisions.

Which of the enumerated powers of Congress authorizes the federal government to shape local land use and zoning? I’m guessing the interstate commerce clause, even though there’s nothing interstate about this. However once the federal government can claim that just being a living individual constitutes interstate commerce (as it is currently claining with respect to the individual health insurance mandate), it would seem that everything is interstate commerce and subject to federal governance.

If you have qualms about the federal government shaping the local planning in your community based on the rationale that “the global threat of climate change is very real”, you need to contact your representative and senators. As Dodd has made clear, he wants this passed before he retires so that means during the lame duck session. If it passes and the federal government “guides” local communities into creating densely populated, ‘location-efficient’ communities, rest assured that Dodd has rejected this lifestyle for himself. Check out his home in Ireland.

Chris Dodd's Irish home

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