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Op-Ed: City planning needs more input at neighborhood level
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

When one buys into a neighborhood, there is the expectation that the rules of development in the neighborhood will be maintained. Once a neighborhood or business community is occupied by residents with this expectation, any change to the status quo will not be welcomed by the people unless they perceive that they will all benefit from the change.

Changes are seen as a breach of contract, although city planners don't follow the rules of contracts as private community associations do. My objective is to provide a means whereby local communities and residents can right the wrongs of city planners and zoners and move toward "organic development" — development by the local people, instead of force from above.

City planning and zoning came about in large part due to nuisance ordinances in New York City in 1916. Over time, planning and zoning has metastasized into what could be more aptly called a large monopoly-controlled homeowners association with no real contract rights for the local citizens. When run by a city-wide planning commission, it is common for the commissioners to force their will upon the local communities with impunity.

The 1100 East streetcar is a classic example of this force. One small organization, appointed by the mayor, cannot possibly know the will of each small faction within each neighborhood, especially when they don't bother to so much as ask them formally. This is to be expected.

Planners typically pursue their own objectives over those of the communities over which they preside. In the case of the streetcar, the decision seemed to have already been made by the mayor and the council when hundreds of angry residents showed up to pack city hall for the council meeting.

Jane Jacobs famously said in her work "Death and Life of Great American Cities": "Our failures with city neighborhoods are, ultimately, failures in localized self-government. And our successes are successes in localized self-government."

Jane fought the imposition of a large freeway project planned to go right through her neighborhood of Greenwich Village. The amazing thing is, she won! She succeeded in stopping the eminent domain seizure of many homes and the uprooting of many families and small businesses.

In 2005 a famous case came before the Supreme Court called the Kelo case, where a developer tried to seize an entire block of residences (some of which had been occupied by the same people for generations) in order to build a five-star hotel for a Fortune 500 company.

The city approved the measure, stating that they only needed to see a potential gain in tax revenue in order to seize private property and give it to private developers. Amazingly, the Supreme Court upheld this decision in what may be called the greatest violation of individual rights by the Supreme Court in decades.

Very few people even heard about the lackluster decision, but virtually every state in the Union has had to pass measures at the state level in order to protect itself from this obvious violation of civil rights.

In opposition to the Kelo case, and the Salt Lake City Redevelopment Agency, I propose we push for a three-tier solution to this problem of abuse by our local government:

1) The RDA must get a preponderance of positive feedback from local communities before moving forward with any large development plan which changes the character of the neighborhood.

2) The city should provide a means whereby city districts may create sub-planning and zoning commissions at the district level to bring the planning decisions closer to the local people.

3) If desired at the community level, local elections could be held which allow for a community association to run their own planning by contract rather than by the arbitrary whims of the planning commission members.

This three-tier approach would change the way the city deals with property rights, putting the rights of the citizens first rather than last in the decision making process.

Kevin Paulson is a mechanical engineer and candidate for Salt Lake City Council District 7.

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