On a personal note

As you may have noticed, I took the summer off from my blogging though I will be resuming my occasional posts after Labor Day. I have been working on an exciting new project which I hope to be able to share details of in the coming months. I have also been preparing to return this fall to teaching at New York University’s Schack Institute for Real Estate. I will once again be offering the capstone course in the development concentration.

In addition, it’s been a summer of moves for our family. Our oldest daughter, Ellen, received her master’s degree from the University of Nebraska in quilt studies. She has moved to the Cleveland area and is the sales and marketing manager for Original Sewing and Quilt Expo which holds shows across the country each year. Our younger daughter, Annie, recently relocated from Boston to Baltimore where she is beginning a master’s program in public health policy at Johns Hopkins. Our youngest, Nick, just returned from a summer of traveling across the length and breadth of the United States helping manage Kick It 3V3′s soccer tournaments. This weekend he will be returning to Skidmore College for his senior year.

We ended our summer with the entire family gathered last weekend in Hershey, Pennsylvania, to celebrate Sally’s mother’s 90th birthday party. Marian is a remarkable woman who lives in the same house she raised her family in and is an active member of her community. It was inspiring to meet so many of her lifelong friends and neighbors during the birthday festivities.

Nick, Ellen and Annie in Hershey, PA

 

 

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Visualizing prisons in the United States

We have all read articles about incarceration rates in the U.S. (5% of the world’s population, 25% of its prison population).The ACLU has put together an amazing graphic illustrating the dimension of the problem.

Josh Begley, a graduate student at NYU trying to grapple with this issue captured aerial images for the 4,916 prisons and jails in the U.S. You can view 700 of these images at Prison Map. He also provides a link for those wanting to view his entire database.

One of the 700 images contained in Prison Map

I will close this post by mentioning two recent disturbing articles that highlight two dimensions of the U.S.’s prison dilemma. We are now spending $16 billion annually incarcerating prisoners aged 55+. The privatization of prisons has led to one company offering to purchase public prisons so long as the state guarantees a 90% occupancy rate for 20 years.

As I scanned the hundreds of images of prisons on Begley’s website, all I could think was “there must be a better way”.

 

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MOOCs

I have to admit I hadn’t heard this term until I read a NY Times article on the phenomenon. I suppose that massive open online courses (MOOC) are the logical extension of online education. These courses consist of large numbers of participants scattered across the globe connected to one or more instructors engaged in an examination of some topic or field of study. For example, Stanford offered a MOOC on artificial intelligence that drew 160,000 students located in 190 countries. The 23,000 who completed the course received a certificate indicating their grade.

Even though course like this one have been offered without charge (and without credit), the next generation of MOOCs may come with a price tag. Udemy is one such start and is offering a mixture of free and paid courses.

These courses offer participants access to noted professors and immersion in a web of information and discussion with peers sharing an interest in the subject matter being addressed. While the courses may contain the normal trappings of an on-campus course – exams, lecture notes, reading assignments, they tend to morph into something much more free form that is a natural outgrowth of connections that crop up among participants. It is these connections that offer a very different take on higher education.

Are these course a natural reaction to the ever increasing costs of higher education? Will universities find themselves losing their best professors who come to see them as unnecessary middlemen in delivering knowledge to students? What does it mean for the billions of dollars of bricks and mortar facilities on these university campuses? As I accompanied my three children on college tours over the past decade, I couldn’t help noticing how libraries once the central feature of every campus had been relegated to secondary status behind student unions, sports and recreation complexes, and lifestyle dormitories.

To a great extent the very top tier of colleges and universities occupy a gatekeeper status of credentials for entry to becoming a member of the elites whether in business, government or academia. I suspect these institutions will withstand the competition offered by MOOCs, but will second and third tier schools be as fortunate?

Many have expressed concerns about the growing commercialization of higher education even on traditional campuses. Aren’t MOOCs the perfect expression of education in a mature capitalist economy where people vote with their feet (fingers?) and dollars. What bodies of knowledge nurtured assiduously over centuries will fall by the wayside?

I don’t want to sound like a Luddite because I generally believe the digital age has made the world a much better place and offers almost limitless possibilities for even more progress. But as someone who believes deeply in the importance of place, I am concerned about a world in which place becomes increasingly virtual rather than real.

 

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Is there a need for “temporary” conservation easements?

Generally speaking residents of cites and urbanized areas applaud the efforts of rural landowners to preserve working farms and an agricultural, open space landscape in the adjoining countryside. Conservation easements carefully targeted can even begin to have some of the same growth management effects that more formal urban growth boundaries do. However, in Colorado, we have an example of two municipalities (Loveland and Johnstown arguing against a proposed conservation easement outside their jurisdiction because the land in question because it might be needed for urban development 15-20 years in the future.

Davis Conservation Project, Larimer County, Colorado

The landowner in question filed a subdivision application for a 46+ acre lot. In order to take advantage of an expedited review process option, he agreed to impose a conservation easement on half of the property thereby assuring it remains in agriculture indefinitely. Both cities point to possible infrastructure projects that might make use of the land and the possibility that a future owner might wish to develop the land for more intensive urban uses that would generate significantly greater tax revenues for the cities.

This somewhat novel dispute raises all sorts of fascinating questions. If the cities see a need for the land, have they considered acquiring it? If they don’t want to purchase it that far in advance of actual development perhaps they could lease development rights in the interim there giving the farmer an additional cash “crop”. [Note: I authored a rather elaborate leasing of development rights proposal for Loudoun County, Virginia, back in the early days of my career. The idea was to manage a more orderly transition of agricultural land on the urban fringe into more dense development.]

If landowners like this one are deprived of the right to use their land for low density rural uses that are admittedly allowed by current zoning but are told their land will eventually be converted to urban uses, what are they to do in the meantime? Does this consign a belt of land around cities and towns to some kind of twilight zone status that makes continued investment in farming activities infeasible?

I am a strong advocate of a more managed approach to how cities grow along their boundaries and to preserving a distinctive boundary between urban and rural areas, but in this case I believe urban interests are trying to have their cake and eat it too. Perhaps this suggests we should create a new category of conservation easements – ones that sunset after 15-30 years. They could be authorized by state law and limited to belts of land around municipalities that go through a comprehensive planning process identifying areas likely to be needed for future urban growth during that 15-30 year period. Funding for the acquisition of such growth management easements could come from the municipalities and non-profits working to preserve farming activities and open space.

 

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Fracking, home rule and sports related development all rolled into one

In 2010 the City of Pittsburgh became the first municipality to ban fracking within its city limits. Gas companies had acquired subsurface mineral rights and had been poised to begin drilling throughout the city including under parks and cemeteries. The ordinance, which was drafted by the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF), takes the somewhat novel approach of enacting a bill of rights not only for the residents of Pittsburgh but also for “natural communities and ecosystems”. It goes beyond even that by stripping corporations of their “personhood” status under the Pennsylvania and U.S. Constitutions. The ordinance, which was passed unanimously, became effective despite the mayor’s refusal to sign the measure. It is worth nothing that Pittsburgh sits at the epicenter of the Marcellus Shale gas drilling frenzy.

Two years later numerous communities have enacted tracking bans though in most cases by way of zoning actions not the kind of rights-based ordinance that Pittsburgh and a few other communities have enacted. Recently the Pennsylvania Legislature adopted Act 13 which strips local governments of the authority to regulate or prohibit any gas drilling or related activities through zoning. This legislation was aimed at overturning a 2009 Pennsylvania Supreme Court opinion which held that local zoning could regulate gas drilling and such efforts were not in conflict with the state’s oil and gas laws.

Seven Pennsylvania municipalities have filed action to overturn the law, and Pittsburgh’s City Council has voted unanimously to support that legal challenge. A lower court has already issued a preliminary injunction delaying the implementation of Act 13 and at least for the moment leaving in place local fracking bans.

Back in Pittsburgh some developers are raising concerns about the possible impact of that city’s ban on downtown office development. The concern is that major energy and gas drilling companies will be reluctant to lease office space in a city that officially opposes their core business. Apparently, the mayor has tried to no avail to get the City Council to reconsider its ban. The Penguins’ 3 million square foot mixed-use project is one of those  that is potentially affected.

Since the Marcellus Shale formation does not extend into Vermont, I was only dimly aware of the controversy swirling around fracking in states to our west. However, since starting to follow the coverage of the issue, it is clear to me this is a matter of great significance not only in terms of exploiting a new, domestic source of energy but in terms of environmental protection and local versus state land use regulation.

 

 

 

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Moosehead Lake conservation easement – who wins?

After years of negotiations, the Plum Creek timber company, The Nature Conservancy and the Forest Society of Maine announced the completion of a $30 million transaction that will create a 363,000 acre conservation easement aimed at protecting the area surrounding Moosehead Lake. The easement will allow continued logging operations and should provide a boon to the local tourism-based economy. The easement represents about 40% of Plum Creek’s holding in the area.

Moosehead Lake conservation easement and Plum Creek development

Concerns remain about the massive development project that Plum Creek won approval for several years ago after a lengthy regulatory process and court battle. That project rezoned nearly 17,000 acres for development including 821 residential units and two resorts with over 1200 rooms.

A local realtor points out that with land prices falling by up to 70% during the Great Recession development is likely years away as infrastructure costs cannot be recouped at current land value levels.

Among the benefits the Forest Society of Maine lists:

  • About 12% of the conserved lands will be managed as ecological reserves
  • The remainder (more than 365,000 acres) will be managed under third party-certification for a sustainable harvest of forest products to the benefit of the state and local economies
  • The newly conserved lands connect to already-conserved properties including 20 existing state parks, resulting in a network of conserved lands totaling nearly 2.25 million acres – three times the size of Rhode Island.

Moosehead Lake, Maine

This does appear on the surface at least to be a “win” for the public though one wonder whether Plum Creek would have been able to secure approvals for any development beyond that it had already obtained. I am curious why Plum Creek and the environmental groups did not negotiate the conservation easement concurrently with the development approval process. That would presumably have given the environmental groups more leverage in the negotiations. With the easement now in hand, will the Forest Society of Maine and The Nature Conservancy feel obligated to support Plum Creek’s future development efforts when the time comes for permitting specific projects?

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When a conservation easement may not be enough

Five years ago The Nature Conservancy purchased 161,000 acres of land in the Adirondack Park. Subsequently New York State acquired conservation easements that will protect 92,000 of those acres but allow continued commercial logging. Another 65,000 acres is slated to be purchased by the state and added to the Park which is protected by the “forever wild” article in the state’s constitution and would preclude any commercial logging.

The final step in this complex preservation transaction is now being challenged by an on-line petition that urges the state to use a conservation easement rather than a fee purchase. From a preservation standpoint this would mean the lands would remain in private ownership and could be used for commercial logging and various hunting and fishing camps would not be displaced. The petition alleges that the cost of acquiring a conservation easement would be $18 million with no ongoing costs as opposed to a first year cost of $60 million and a total cost of $400 million over ten years taking into account lost taxes, management expenses and lost opportunity costs.

The petition is supported by the Local Government Review Board and the Adirondack Association of Towns and Villages. One argument that proponents of the petition make is that “forever wild” status could make dealing with invasive species more difficult if not impossible and put the private forest lands at risk as well.

 

Boreas Ponds

The tension between those living in the park and relying on its lands to make a living and those who seek to have it protected and preserved is a longstanding challenge to those responsible for making and implementing environmental and economic development policy in the state. The Adirondack Park is the largest park in the lower 48 states and is unique in having 130,000 permanent residents living within its boundaries. In many ways it is an ongoing experiment in what it means for humans to live in a fragile ecosystem on a sustainable basis.

 

 

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Zoning and obesity – an American view

Over the past decade, academics and public health policymakers have begun to make the case for the connection between zoning and obesity. In 2003, three professors at the Georgetown University Law Center argued that many of public health’s greatest advances in the 19th century (e.g., public water and sewerage systems, building codes and the separation of noxious uses from residential neighborhoods) depended on changes in the built environment. But in the 20th century zoning has propelled a separation of uses and an almost complete reliance on the automobile to move people to wherever they need to go. This, in turn, has resulted in a sedentary lifestyle that is increasingly seen as a major contributing factor in the chronic ills (e.g., coronary disease, Type 2 diabetes, stroke, obesity) that are our most serious pubic health issue.

Another front in this debate is the so-called food deserts – areas where healthy, affordable food is difficult to obtain. Many poorer inner city neighborhoods have no chain supermarkets where the greatest variety of foods and lowest prices can be found. The same phenomenon can be found in isolated rural areas of the country. The USDA has even created a food desert locator website though some recent studies have called into question this thesis.

The respected Institute of Medicine, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences, just released a report entitled “Accelerating Progress in Obesity Prevention: Solving the Weight of the Nation”. The report outlines a comprehensive strategic plan to combat the underlying conditions that have given rise to the epidemic of obesity in the nation. One of the recommendations that has caught the media’s eye is to limit zoning for fast-food restaurants. The report identifies three features of the built environment that influence public health and specifically obesity: (i) transportation infrastructure, (ii) land use patterns, and (iii) urban design. Some of the policies that the report suggests local communities consider include:

  • Landscaping and lighting to improve the appearance and safety of pedestrian corridors;
  • Tax incentives to developers include sidewalks and trails;
  • Requiring pedestrian access to all uses;
  • Encouraging bicycling for recreation and commuting;
  • Increase proximity of residential areas to workplace and shopping so trips can be made on foot or by bicycle; and
  • Making school athletic facilities available to the public at large after school hours.
The report’s authors note that changes in the built environment take many years to get to the point where they will make a measurable difference in public health.
I’ll end with a recent local incident that highlights the collision between local zoning and our more recent interest in public health which includes not only exercise but also nutrition. Two years ago a Burlington, VT, couple built a homemade hoop-style greenhouse on their front to extend the growing season for their vegetable garden. All was well until a neighbor complained and now they have been cited because the hoop houses are a “stable structure” and the raised beds constitute a “retaining wall”. One of the enthusiastic gardeners responded, ”This is Vermont, for goodness sake . . . We’re all about sustainable living.”

Front yard green houses

 

 

 

 

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The Green House Project

One of my current quests is to get a better handle on the looming senior housing crisis and, in particular, whether there is a better way to address the needs of elders who are currently housed in traditional nursing homes. During the course of my research I came across the Green House Project. Dr. William Thomas founded the movement which espouses a philosophy of providing small homes (no more than 12 residents), providing privacy with single rooms each with their own bath, and offering care that recognizes the individuality, autonomy and dignity of each resident.

I had the opportunity this past week to attend a two day workshop offered by NCB Capital Impact, which manages the Green House Project nationally. The workshop was held at the Lebanon Valley Brethren Home in Palmyra, Pennsylvania, where there are four operating Green Houses.

Green Houses, Palmyra, PA

The strategy is to combine an authentically residential rather than institutional design approach along with a fundamental refocusing of care from one in which the provider is at the center to one in which the elders are center stage. Designs must include a great room incorporating a communal dining table, a working fireplace, and an open kitchen where all meals are prepared.

Green House great room

Individual bedrooms each with their own bath are clustered around this great room.

Floor plan for Sheridan, WY, Green House

Perhaps even more striking is the way in which staffing is organized. Certified nursing assistants are called Shahbazim and are responsible not only for primary care of the residents but also perform all housekeeping and cooking duties. The combination of the small scale and these “jack of all trade” caregivers lead to extremely close relationships being developed between the elders and Shahbazim.

I have to admit that I was skeptical most nursing home patients would benefit from the Green House setting but based on the research done to date and the time I spent in an operating Green House visiting with residents and staff left me convinced that even the most compromised elder does indeed experience a significant improvement in his or her quality of life in this kind of home setting.

From a developer’s or operator’s standpoint, it is heartening to learn that operating costs for a Green House are almost identical to those for a traditional nursing home.

After a serious stroke, my mother spent the last several years of her life in a traditional nursing home. While it was a well run facility, my mother never felt comfortable there often complaining about the lack of privacy. Throughout the two day workshop, I kept wishing that Green Houses had appeared in time for my mother.

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Visible impacts

I should start out by saying that while I have never lived near an array of wind turbines, I find their slowly rotating blades to be almost mesmerizing and not a blot on the landscape. I will admit that most of my experience with them comes from cross-country drives and seeing them spread across grazing lands in the Great Plains and farm fields in the Midwest. I understand that many find these wind farms objectionable on various grounds including aesthetic ones.

The Maine Land Use Regulation Commission recently unanimously denied a development permit for First Wind’s Bowers Mountain project. The project would have consisted of 27 wind turbines with a maximum height of 428 feet. They would have been located i along the Penobscot-Washington County line in an area that includes nine lakes - Pleasant, Shaw, Duck, Junior, Scraggly, Keg, Bottle, Sysladobsis and Pug.

The decision hinged on the project’s visual impact and its potential impact on the hunting, fishing and guide business that comprises much of the local economy. The commission appeared to rely heavily on testimony of those who worked in the tourism industry and their beliefs that the presence of an array of wind turbines would drive visitors away from the rural, pristine area.

Stetson Mountain, Maine

Since First Wind has already stated that it plans to resubmit a scaled down version of the project, we have almost certainly not hear the last of this particular fight. While I understand the need to consider the visual impact of such projects, I can’t help but wonder if we put too much weight on the visual impacts of projects in our immediate vicinity and too little weight on invisible impacts (i.e., the release of pollutants into the air and water) that nonetheless have a profound impact on the environment and human health.

 

 

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