Is Agenda 21 really evil?

For those of you who wonder what happened as a result of the U.N.’s Earth Summit in Rio in 1992, Tea Parties will tell you that it launched a global conspiracy against property rights in the form of Agenda 21, a set of policy and program recommendations for national and regional governments to implement to protect the environmental and promote sustainable development. Like all too many well meaning U.N. documents, this one has been largely ignored in the ensuing years though sustainable development remains a favorite approach of planners and environmental advocates around the world.

Michael Shaw is one of those credited with first raising the alarm about Agenda 21 back in the 1990s. More recently the Tea Party has latched on to this issue and has been making appearances at zoning and land use hearings around the country (see examples in TennesseeVirginia and Florida) and to warn of the insidious affect of Agenda 21. Specifically, Tea Party members see a link between Agenda 21 and local actions regarding bike paths, public transit, zoning, conservation easements and smart growth as steps towards undermining private property rights.

The Arizona Legislature, which can always be counted on to be in the forefront on matters like this, has introduced a billthat would prohibit state and local governments from implementing “the creed, doctrine, principles or any tenet” of Agenda 21. One wonders what would be left of land use and environmental planning and regulation in Arizona if this bill were to pass.

This might seem like a tempest in a teapot if you will but recently the Republican National Committee at its 2012 winter meeting adopted a resolution condemning Agenda 21. This resolution will be offered as part of the Republican Party’s platform at its upcoming convention. You ought to take a moment to read it in its entirety but the following passage will give you an idea of the underlying sentiment:

“WHEREAS, this United Nations Agenda 21 plan of radical so-called “sustainable development” views the American way of life of private property ownership, single family homes, private car ownership and individual travel choices, and privately owned farms; all as destructive to the environment . . .”

It’s difficult to know where to begin commenting on something like this. I think it is fair to say this is another reflection of the deep divide there is in this country on a broad spectrum of fundamental issues. As is the case with many of these issues, those in the Tea Party and an increasingly large portion of the GOP would like to return to an earlier, simpler era such as the 1950s. In the case of land use regulation this means ignoring all we have learned about the nature of ecosystems and their relationship to human health and well being. Yet there is a clear track record throughout U.S. history that property rights have been a malleable concept that have adapted to new scientific and technical knowledge in areas such as hydrology, oil and gas geology, air travel, and telecommunications. If it had not, airlines would have been required to purchase air rights easements from each landowner over whose property a plane flew.

The nature of property was at the heart of this country’s founding (though not necessarily in the way popularly imagined) and has been at the foundation of our two greatest failings as a nation – the unwillingness to recognize the very different property regimes of Native Americans and the institution of slavery. It should be no surprise that we continue to struggle as a society with the property balance to strike between individual and collective property rights.

Mixed-use development and Lincoln’s new arena

The City of Lincoln is poised to approve a redevelopment agreement next week that will provide $7.4 million in tax increment financing (TIF) to the $57 million project. The project will consist of 92,500 square feet of residential space, 15,000 square feet of office space, 49,500 square feet of retail space and a 110-room hotel. The TIF money will be used for various public components of the project. The most interesting of these will include a public gathering place, a large outdoor screen for entertainment purposes, and a year round public market.

The proposed project is located immediately to the west of Lincoln’s Haymarket district.

You can access a complete copy of the proposed redevelopment agreement at the Lincoln City Council’s website.

Where the buffalo roam

An interesting land use and property rights dispute has arisen in Montana where the state began “allowing” bison to roam beyond the boundaries of Yellowstone National Park. State officials argue that bison are “free roaming animals that the state manages but cannot not control”. This is, of course, the case for other types of wildlife including deer, elk, bears and the like. The Montana Farm Bureau Federation is adamantly opposed to this new policy and has intervened in a case initially filed by Park County. The MFBF’s position is that bison are more akin to cattle than to deer or elk. They consider free roaming bison to be a threat to the property rights of their members.

Further complicating the politics of this issue is that one of the primary objectives of the new policy is to allow tribes in Montana to reestablish free roaming herds of bison on reservation land.

Traditionally wildlife in the United States is considered to be “owned” by all of us and held in trust by state and federal governments for their citizens. So what we have here is actually a collision of property rights – those of the private landowners on whose land the bison are roaming and those of the rest of us who have a collective ownership interest in the bison. Oftentimes these sorts of disputes are inaccurately described as an effort by government to regulate the exercise of private property rights.

As we have come to better understand the complexity and interrelatedness of ecosystems and the importance of them to human health and well being, these disputes are become more common. Those who support protection of public trust resources must be careful not to allow private property advocates to frame the debate as whether government has overstepped its regulatory bounds. Instead they must insist that the disputes be analyzed and resolved as conflicts between two sets of property rights.



Development and conservation easements

After a seven year struggle, the Supreme Judicial Court of Maine has paved the way for Plum Creek which calls itself the largest and most geographically diverse private landowner in the nation to proceed with a rezoning of 400,000 acres of Northern Forest land. Ultimately 16,000 of those acres will be developed for 975 residential lots and two large resorts.

A variety of environmental groups found themselves on both sides of this battle depending on whether or not they were purchasing conservation easements from Plum Creek. The Nature Conservancy and The Appalachian Mountain Club purchased conservation easements over 307,500 acres in order to complete a 2 million acre “preserved” corridor that is the size of Yellowstone National Park.

Despite this, other environmental groups including the National Resources Council of Maine, RESTORE: The North Woods, and the Forest Ecology Network waged a lengthy and costly campaign against the project.

One wonders if conservation easements have eroded the public’s right to strictly regulate development on wild lands. Is it realistic to think that Plum Creek or any other landowner would be able to develop large portions of this land? Could a similar outcome have been achieved with an exclusively regulatory approach? By being willing to pay private landowners to preserve their land, are environmental groups establishing an expectation that similarly situated landowners are entitled to be paid if the public wishes to limit or even prohibit development of wild lands?

Note: You can access a full copy of the Court’s opinion at

What should the useful life of a sports facility be?

Residents of Orlando will be able to watch the implosion of the Amway Arena on March 25. Completed in 1989 at a cost of $110 million and paid for entirely with public funds, the arena was the home to the NBA Orlando Magic for 21 years before moving to the $500 million Amway Center.

Original Amway Arena

Should cities expect to have to replace their sports facilities every 20 years; and, if so, how should this be taken into account when they make the initial decision to build a sports facility? Other pieces of civic infrastructure (e.g., courts, libraries, museums, hospitals) are not regularly torn down after 20 years. Furthermore some of our most treasured sports venues – Fenway Park, Wrigley Field, Dodger Stadium, Madison Square Garden – have remained viable for decades longer than that.

Perhaps municipalities need to pay more attention to the lifecycle of their sports facilities when the negotiate financing and use agreements at the outset to insure that they are properly maintained and keep up to date. In the long run, such an approach is likely to save taxpayers a great deal of money.

Sports facilities as infrastructure

Should sports facilities be thought of as pieces of a metropolitan area’s infrastructure rather than as another building type like shopping centers or multi-family housing? Doing so might enable city officials and taxpayers to take a more honest and realistic approach to analyzing the value of a proposed sports facility project.

In Waco, Texas, Baylor is planning to construct a new $250 million football stadium on a site along the banks of the Brazos River. Proponents of the project hope that it will jump start development of a long delayed effort by Waco to create their own version of San Antonio’s famed River Walk. 

Putting aside for the moment whether institutions of higher learning have lost there way in the swamp of college athletics, it seems to me that whenever the public sector makes an investment of the size required for any sports facility it ought to be accomplishing multiple public policy objectives. One such objective is advancing a city’s capital improvements program for infrastructure. Perhaps the best examples of the connection between sports facilities and urban infrastructure are the way in which various Olympic host cities have used the games as a catalyst for spurring completion of transit, highway, park, and other infrastructure projects.


Purchase of development rights

Over the past twenty years or so, there has been an explosion of local land trusts across the country. These trusts typically seek to preserve agricultural or environmentally sensitive parcels by purchasing the development rights from the owners of such parcels. At a recent  meeting of the Washington County (VA) Board of Supervisors, Neal Kilgore of the Virginia Outdoors Foundation argued that “If a farmer has the right to sell his mineral rights, why should he not also have the right to sell his development rights?”

But are development rights really analogous to mineral rights? Mineral rights, like most of the rights we typically think a landowner is free to sell (e.g., timber, water, pasture, access) are innate characteristics of the land). Development rights are an artificial construct which have been bestowed on the land by the local political jurisdiction in most cases. So the cost of acquiring development rights for an agricultural parcel is directly tied to the nature of development rights granted to the parcel in the first place. What makes this even more odd is that in many cases the political body making the decision on what kind of development rights should be granted to a parcel is the same body that is deciding later to purchase those development rights.

Do stadiums spur new development?

Stadium advocates would answer that question with a resounding “YES!”, but the actual picture is more murky as blogger Nathaniel Hood suggests in a recent post. He supports his skepticism about this claim with a series of aerial photos of stadiums and their surroundings over a 15-20 year period. In city after city (e.g., Minneapolis, Indianapolis, Phoenix, and Philadelphia). The real culprit appears to be the amount of land devoted to surface parking lots and the considerable cost involved in building parking garages to free up land for redevelopment.

Does this suggest cities interested in using sports facilities as a catalyst for redevelopment would be better advised to focus on arenas or smaller stadiums housing soccer or minor league baseball?

Can NFL teams really play “home” games in Europe?

The NFL has made it clear that it wants to expand the slate of games being played in London. Doing so will require more teams to move “home” games to an away site. Whether or not a team is legally able to do so depends on the exact language in its stadium lease agreement. It is interesting to note that in the recently announced Vikings Stadium deal (which still requires Minneapolis City Council approval and possibly a referendum as well) there is a specific provision allowing the Vikings to play up to four regular season and two pre-season home games elsewhere over a 10-year period of time. It will be interesting to see how this plays out at cities around the league as moving any home games dilutes the economic impact on which stadium construction was justified in the first place.