News from around Nebraska: Local zoning as a challenge to livestock expansion

In this article from Nebraska TV a dairy farmer from central Nebraska talks about the challenges of expanding livestock operations in Nebraska. The primary challenge cited in the article?  Local zoning.  A number of UNL agricultural economists weigh in on the “uncertainty” presented by local zoning.  The lack of local zoning control in Iowa is mentioned.

The article is titled “Steakonomics – Advantages and Disadvantages of Livestock Expansion in Nebraska.”

Commentary from Wisconsin: Protect rural lands with planning and zoning

In this commentary from the Cap Times (Madison, Wisconsin) columnist Bill Berry states the case for zoning in rural areas.  The issue du jour in Wisconsin (as in NE Iowa) is frac sand mining, but you could quickly create a long list of land uses that have stirred up controversy in rural areas over the years.  Neither Rick Stadelman – who I had occasion to work with years ago – nor the Wisconsin Towns Association would be described as left-leaning; however, Rick has long been a champion for Wisconsin towns controlling their destinies through good comprehensive plans and consistently administered zoning regulations.

First STROADs, now SNECKDOWNs. Two weeks of new traffic terminology

Last week I linked to an article about STROADs – the street/road hybrid that moves traffic at speeds too fast to support adjacent economic investment, but too slow for efficient transportation. This week finds me reading about SNECKDOWNs – piles of plowed snow found at street intersections that act as de facto curb extensions (a.k.a. “neckdowns,” making snow neckdowns into…SNECKDOWNs!). The article is here. In it Clarence Erickson, a documentarian who focuses on pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly streets, says

When that snow piles up at a lot of intersections in neighbourhoods, you see that space where they could put a kerb extension,” says Eckerson. “The cars still can make the turn, including trash trucks and school buses, but you see the slow, more deliberate turn around the corner instead of cutting it….It’s free. You don’t have to do a crazy expensive traffic calming study. It provides a visual cue into how people behave in transportation.

(If the spellings didn’t give it away, the article is from the BBC News Magazine.)

The STROAD…. futon of transportation alternatives!

This article from Atlantic cities caught my eye; because I had never heard the term “STROAD,” and because the relationship between STROADs and land use have been hiding in plain view from me.  From the article:

The STROAD design — a street/road hybrid — is the futon of transportation alternatives. Where a futon is a piece of furniture that serves both as an uncomfortable couch and an uncomfortable bed, a STROAD moves cars at speeds too slow to get around efficiently but too fast to support productive private sector investment. The result is an expensive highway and a declining tax base….Anytime you are traveling between 30 and 50 miles per hour, you are basically in an area that is too slow to be efficient yet too fast to provide a framework for capturing a productive rate of return.

What are the STROADs in your community doing to your tax base?  Think about the types of development you find along the 45 mph limit STROADs in your community.  How much of it that is 20 years old or older looks like it is ready for the wrecking ball already?  How many of the businesses along your old STROADS have relocated to your new STROADS, leaving underutilized buildings?

Comment: Rural Subdivisions and the Agricultural Exemption to Iowa County Zoning after Lang v. Linn County

by Gary Taylor

This article originally appeared in the Legal Briefs section of the May “The Iowa County” magazine.

Iowa Code 335.2 states that county zoning cannot be enforced against “land, farm houses, farm barns, farm outbuildings or other buildings or structures which are primarily adapted, by reason of nature and area, for use for agricultural purposes, while so used.” This agricultural exemption has been the subject of court cases throughout the years focusing on what constitutes a “use for agricultural purposes.”  Despite the lessons provided by these cases, county officials still wrestle with many unanswered questions about the interpretation of section 335.2. One of the most vexing issues has been rural acreages and large-lot rural subdivisions.  Is the owner of a five-acre residence who has a job in the nearby city qualified for the exemption if he raises an acre or two of crops or a few head of livestock?

On March 29 the Iowa Supreme Court decided Lang v. Linn County Board of Adjustment, in which the Court reviewed two separate decisions by the county to deny exemptions for two separate parcels: a 6.52-acre parcel that included the Langs’ residence, and a 43.3-acre parcel with 2 houses.  While the case does not definitively answer the exemption question for every rural acreage, it does provide several helpful guidelines for county officials going forward.

The Court began by pointing out the differences between the language of section 335.2 as it appears today, and as it was prior to amendments made in 1963.  The differences were critical to the Court’s reasoning.  Prior to 1963 the statute was concerned with land, farm houses and buildings “which are adapted, by reason of nature and area, for use for agricultural purposes as a primary means of livelihood, while so used.” Thus, prior to 1963 the statute did not contain the word “primarily,” (“primarily adapted”) but did tie the exemption to use for agricultural purposes “as a primary means of livelihood” for the landowner.

In the Court’s view, the addition of the word “primarily” allows county zoning authorities to consider “the relative size, value, and construction date of the house compared to the scope, value, and duration of the claimed agricultural activities,” and deny the exemption when the agricultural activities “are basically a sideline designed to obtain an agricultural zoning exemption for the owners’ residence.”  For the Langs’ residence on 6.52-acres, the Court determined that it was a “a residential tail wagging a farmland dog and that the property as a whole was not primarily dedicated to agriculture.” Although the Langs claimed in their exemption filing to be producing trees, raspberries, blackberries, asparagus, apples, grapes, and tomatoes, they provided no records of production or sales. Photographs indicated that the asparagus, grape vines and raspberry bushes, at least, were wild and in a wooded thicket. The Court did not believe that “the legislature intended to allow a homeowner to avoid county zoning requirements simply by having a tomato patch in his or her backyard.”

The Langs also claimed that the county improperly applied a minimum acreage test and flunked the Langs’ 6.52-acre parcel simply because it was too small.  Previous cases have held that a county cannot use parcel size as the sole measure for determining whether a parcel is primarily adapted for agriculture; however, in Lang the Court affirmed that parcel size can be one of the factors considered when making the determination, stating that “if size were not relevant, then nothing could prevent a developer from obtaining a zoning exemption for an entire development subdivided into half-acre lots so long as some agricultural product were planted in the development and tended by the homeowners.”

Because the Linn County Zoning Ordinance prohibits more than one dwelling on a single undivided parcel of land, the Langs sought an exemption for a second house built on a 43.3-acre tract, claiming that the occupant (the Langs’ son) would be performing farming tasks on the property.  The county did not dispute that the 43.3 acres should be considered agricultural, but disagreed that the second house was “primarily adapted” for agriculture since the son had a regular day job, and that he would be spending only 2 1/2-hours per day at most on farming activities.  The Court sided with the county, stating that “it is appropriate for the county to ask how much time the tenants of the house spend on farming activities. Otherwise, a farmer could erect multiple homes and avoid county zoning simply by assigning nominal farm tasks to an occupant of each home.” Implicit in the Court’s reasoning is that although a landowner no longer must show that the property is his “primary means of livelihood,” the landowner must be able to closely tie the activities of the person occupying the house to the agricultural production taking place on the property.

The Court concluded with a common-sense observation of how misapplying the exemption to rural acreages has the potential to cause problems in the future: “When a house has been erected by taking advantage of an agricultural exemption, but then is later sold to a person who is not engaged in agriculture, the house becomes a nonconforming use, which limits the new owner’s ability to modify or, if necessary, to rebuild the house.”

Smart Growth for Conservatives

A good blogpost by William Fulton entitled “Shouldn’t Smart Growth appeal to Conservatives?” can be found on the California Planning and Development Report website.  Fulton discusses a session held at the recent New Partners for Smart Growth conference in Kansas City, at which conservative commentators called out several instances where Smart Growth practices embody more conservative principles than the traditional rules of development.  Conservatives should embrace practices that create more flexibility in the marketplace.  Overemphasis on suburban low-density development, rigid use separation (“why not allow granny flats?”), onerous minimum parking requirements, and a lack of enabling legislation in many states (including Iowa)  that would force growth to pay its own way were some of the traditional practices that conservatives agreed need to be abandoned.

The conservative commentators referenced in Fulton’s post certainly do not agree with all Smart Growth practices, but this is the turf on which Smart Growth should be debated.  As one of our bright graduate students in the ISU planning program and I point out in our Des Moines Register op-ed, discussions of the merits of good planning practice are increasingly being hijacked by Agenda 21 conspiracy theorists.  The time and oxygen at public forums is better spent by citizens discussing the pros and cons of transit-oriented nodes, mixed use development, or green infrastructure, rather than the U.N.’s secret efforts to move us all into communes.

Leinberger calls out standard development models

Considering that Christopher Leinberger was the keynote speaker at our Upper Midwest APA conference last week, I thought  the readers of this blog that attended the conference (both of you!?) would find interesting this recent article from The Atlantic Cities.

Leinberger has identified the 19 building types that he contends caused the real estate market swoon we are now in.  In the article he calls out the “Grocery Anchored Neighborhood Center”:

This creation is generally about 12 to 15 acres in size on a plot of land that’s 80 percent covered in asphalt. It’s located on the going-home side of a major four-to-eight lane arterial road, where it catches people when they’re most likely to be thinking about what to buy for dinner. It has a major, 50,000 to 70,000 square-foot supermarket on one end and a drug store with drive-through on the other, with national and regional chain stores, maybe a Hallmark and a Starbucks in between. The parking lot contains four or five spaces per thousand square-feet of retail. There is, in theory, a sidewalk, although no one is expected to use it. Every shop is designed to be seen by potential customers passing by at 45 mph. And – with the exception of a few last-minute regionally specific touches for art-deco paint schemes or Mediterranean roof tiles – this L-shaped shopping center looks the same whether you’re pulling into it from Denver or Orlando.

His message is the same as it was during his talk; that we have overbuilt several standard development types that the real estate market is now burdened with.  The message of hope is that the recession now (hopefully) gives us a chance to reconsider our development practices and return to less auto-dependent models.

Highly educated cities also the highest-earning

According to census data released Thursday, regions with the most skilled and highly paid workers continue to widen their advantages over less well-endowed locales.  The Wall Street Journal provides a synopsis of other findings in the data:

  • The U.S. added 27 million people over the decade, but metro areas—defined as the collection of small cities and suburbs that surround an urban core with at least 50,000 people—accounted for most of the population gain.
  • The 10 cities with the highest share of their population holding a bachelor’s degree or higher saw that share jump by an average of 4.6 percentage points over the decade, while the bottom 10 saw their share grow by only 3.1 percentage points.
  • Those higher-educated areas also tend to be the highest-earning. In the San Francisco metro area, where 43% of adult residents have a college degree or higher, the median household income stands at $73,027. Nationwide, 28.2% of people aged 25 and older have a college degree, and the median household income is $50,046.
  • Median incomes fell almost everywhere in the decade, but to a lesser degree in metro areas with higher levels of income. The top 10 highest-earning cities saw inflation-adjusted median incomes fall an average of 6.5% from 2000 to 2010—from $75,110 to $70,201—while the median for the bottom 10 metro areas fell 10.8%—from $46,380 to $41,378.

The pattern of smart cities becoming more dominant is a departure from past trends, noted Edward Glaeser, an economist at Harvard University. Through the first part of the 20th century, jobs and wealth clustered around places like Detroit and Cleveland that had large concentrations of capital and industry. Today, a city’s overall education level and supply of higher-skilled labor are the big drivers of its economic success.

The online article provides an interesting interactive chart of statistics for the 50 states and the District of Columbia.  In 2010, Iowa ranked 21st among the states in ratio of college graduates to those with less than a high school diploma.  A good jump from 32nd in 1990, but a much less-spectacular hop from 22nd in 2000.  If you are looking at surrounding states, however, Iowa is running middle of the pack, ahead of Missouri (31st), Illinois (25th) and South Dakota (23rd), but behind Wisconsin (18th), Nebraska (13th) and Minnesota (1st).  In fact, Madison, Wisconsin and the Omaha metro area experienced the second and sixth largest increases, respectively, among all metro areas in the percentage growth in the number of adults with college degrees.

Dense cities are the most productive cities

On the Sunday opinion page of the New York Times Ryan Avent, an economics correspondent for The Economist magazine makes the case for dense cities.  Economists studying cities routinely find that after controlling for other variables, workers in denser places earn higher wages and are more productive. Studies suggest that doubling density raises productivity from 6 percent to as much as 28 percent. Some economists have concluded that more than half the variation in output per worker across the United States can be explained by density alone; density explains more of the productivity gap across states than education levels or industry concentrations or tax policies. ” Put two workers with similar skill levels in cities of different densities and the one in the denser place will be more productive.”

Access the full article here for the economic rationale behind this.

Prediction: Worst is yet to come for housing market

An interesting article predicting a “coming housing calamity” appeared on the New Urban News newsletter.  Arthur Nelson, a well-respected planning professor at the University of Utah, predicts that the sales of single-family homes by aging baby boomers, rising household sizes, dropping homeownership and tighter lending standards will result in a “disaster for homebuilders.”





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