Saturday, January 01, 2011

Reports from the Cul-De-Sac Preservation Society

Are Liberal city dwellers trying to take away Conservative suburbanites’ God-given right to a cul-de-sac?

In November,  I wrote about the Tea Party’s latest bugaboo – "sustainable development." Tea Partiers, most of whom live in suburbs, are afraid that Liberal city dwellers are going to roust them from their cul-de-sac neighborhoods and stuff them into tiny Hobbit homes surrounded by light rail stations and Starbucks and pushy minorities. Sustainable development is the catch-all term for this alarming trend.

One of the scarifiers is Ed Braddy in Gainesville, Florida. He leads the American Dream Coalition. 

Another is Virginia activist Donna Holt (from Mother Jones):.
In Virginia, Holt is trying to whip up tea party opposition to a comprehensive development plan being drafted in Chesterfield County, where she lives near Richmond. She believes such plans will, among other things, ban cul de sacs, and she happens to live on one. So far, though, she hasn't made much progress with the county. "They don't want to hear from us," she says. "They think we are wackos with tinfoil hats."
After a recent trip to Florida, I have a bit more empathy for their cause.

Imagine that you are one of the millions of Americans who have worked very hard for a house in the suburbs. It’s a big house, bigger than you need for your two kids, but it’s an investment, right?  Americans want big houses with many bathrooms along tree-lined streets in family-friendly, low-density neighborhoods.  

Commercial development should be located far away, as convenience stores and big box stores bring in the riff-raff. You can walk the neighborhood but you can’t walk to work or school or the store.  That’s part of the charm. It’s what Americans want in their lifestyles.

That was the zeitgeist from the 1950s until now. That’s changing. Younger people (older types, too) want to live in the city surrounded by light rail and Starbucks and farmers' markets. They think that minorities make for a lively cityscape, as long as those minorities aren’t crackheads. New Urbanism has taken hold, even in the burbs. Developers want multi-use zoning that allows for more compact neighborhoods and local shopping and walkable schools and alternative energy. Public transportation is a sought-after commodity, not one to be feared.  

Meanwhile, housing prices have dropped precipitously. So much for that two-story, many-bathroomed mini-manse. Several foreclosures have cropped up in the neighborhood. Jobs are threatened. Surefire Wall Street investments don’t look so hot. Pensions are not a sure thing. People with foreign-sounding names are in the White House.

Some of the fears are real. They are stoked by the Tea Party and Fox News. Pretty soon you believe that government types are out to remove your cul-de-sac and put you in a hobbit home.

After spending a week in suburbs in north and central Florida, I understand that fear a bit better.  Without a GPS, I’d be challenged to find the homes of my sisters’ families in Tallahassee. In fact, GPS may have been invented for suburban sprawl. In olden times, streets were laid out in grids using numbers and letters. Almost every city has at last a remnant of that design.

Suburbs, especially in hilly Tallahassee, follow the terrain. Names are confusing, too. Winding Hills Street leads to Winding Hills Lane leads to Winding Hills Court which, of course, is a cul-de-sac. When you reach this dead end, you have to backtrack through the Winding Hills names to get to Forest Vista Street to Forest Vista Lane to Forest Vista Court and – you guessed it – another cul-de-sac. I imagine cars circling like the Flying Dutchman, searching for a way out of this confusion. Before GPS, of course. Now it’s a snap.

We drove long distances through Tallahassee neighborhoods without seeing a store, not even a convenience store, which are ubiquitous. Zoning and neighborhood groups hold stores at bay. The price you pay is that everyone in the family needs a car. The price we all pay is that all those cars pollute and lead to global warming.

As long as I’ve been alive – 60 years – the move has been to this sort of development and not the clustered, walkable, open-zoned, public transportation and locavore-friendly type being promoted  now. If these crazy ideas catch hold, how am I going to sell my house in 10 or 20 years? Could my neighborhood become a dead zone, with foreclosed falling-down houses and bad roads and crime and squatters? That old phrase of location location location would turn out to be a curse rather than a bonus.

Many of my friends around the U.S. live in old-style suburban developments. Many people I know in Cheyenne live out north and east so they can have peace and quiet and property and horses. They are unfettered by city zoning rules.

I live in a near-suburb, I guess you’d call it. I can walk to work but don’t. If needed, I could walk to stores to buy groceries, pastries, fast food, building supplies, beer, tires, pizza, sandwiches, tacos, insurance. I can walk to my credit union. During the summer, there’s a weekly farmer’s market nearby, although it’s moving downtown this year. When they were young, my kids walked or rode their bikes to school. The excellent Cheyenne Greenway is only blocks from our house. I could walk to the airport if needed, although there’s plenty of free parking.

You can probably guess that there are trade-offs. I live close to two of the busiest streets in Cheyenne – Dell Range and Yellowstone. The interstate is a half-mile away but I can hear the Harleys roar down it on August mornings. C-130s make a racket operating out of the Air National Guard base – its entrance is three blocks from my house. We have rental properties in the neighborhood. One of them is an eyesore. The other looks like a used car lot. We’ve had a few broken windows and robberies but nothing substantial, crime-wise.

I like my neighborhood. But I’m a city boy. I don’t want to live on the windy prairie. Or on a suburban cul-de-sac. These people are spitting into the wind. The age of cheap oil and the internal combustion engine and sprawl is drawing to a close. It's just a fact. And I'm not scared. 

Except of the Cul-De-Sac Preservation Society activists. They're a bit spooky. In their fears of being left behind, they may do some crazy things, such as elect a horde of Tea Partiers to Congress. 


Monica Thompson said...

It's mildly amusing that what will finally kill sprawl isn't clear logic, good planning, an understanding of the excessive infrastructure costs, or any of that.

It looks as if it will be simply a change of tastes, with the younger generation looking for neighborhood character more than they are looking for isolation and three-car garages.

Human adventure may win after all.

dljholt said...

It's not the cul de sac or even the urban environment that is feared. It's the government control of every aspect of our lives. the loss of choices of where and how we live, the erosion of private property rights to do what I want on my own land.

Harry said...

You'll probably just delete this comment, but here goes:

It's really not about cul-de-sacs, although that's what the author of the Mother Jones article tries to imply.

What it is really about is reversing the United States' founding principles of freedom and property rights. The agenda is to revert the control of all land back to the State, even to the point of controlling what can be grown, what happens to the water (both in ground and from rain), how many "human habitation" units must be accommodated, and whether humans are allowed access to the land at all.

The Chesterfield County plan, while it does restrict cul-de-sacs (no big deal) also includes a long-term county depopulation goal, which you can read yourself. The land use map lines up perfectly with the UN's Wildlands Project maps.
Erik Kritter has a good primer, for those interested in what is really going on, and why people are starting to oppose the efforts of ICLEI and other NGOs working to implement these global plans at the local level.

Michael Shay said...

A city or county government's planning process does not mean "government takeover." It just means that our elected reps are doing the adult thing and planning for the future, which arrives whether we want it to or not.

Harry said...

Too much information in my last post? Or just didn't like what I said? Well it's your blog, you have every right to censor posts that don't agree with your ideology.

Here's another one from the Chesterfield County comprehensive plan:

According to the New Comprehensive Plan page 87 section W 4.1.3 Prevent Loss Of Treated Water the county will be able to monitor your usage of water. Given, they already do this to bill you. The concern lies in the Implementaion Element, page 103, A-S 33, which states that "a tiered water structure where the unit price for water increases when designated consuption levels per account have been reached.". Another problem, the 'designated consumption levels per account' aren't written into the plan. Sound fishy?

This is just one of many concerns in the New Comprehensive Plan, which has cost $869,920 of Chesterfield County tax dollars so far.

Michael Shay said...

Harry: Your first comment was intercepted by my spam filter. Perhaps it suspected you were a Tea Party mole out to sabotage one of the few progressive bloggers in Wyoming.

I'm not in the business of censoring comments I don't like. Heck, I'd hardly get any comments at all.

I can be taught. Can you?

Harry said...

Michael: Thanks for your response. That "censorship" comment seems a little harsh, now that I see it posted. I should have assumed spam filters first, so sorry about that one.

I am a staunch Independent, and yes, I can be taught. It's not unusual for me to changes position on things when I get more information. In fact, this is one that I dismissed a couple of years ago as tin-foil-hattery conspiracy theory until I actually started doing my own research. I have no problem with land-use planning per-se, and I would like to see more support for more mixed-use communities and less suburban sprawl. The problems are the with the "consensus process" that ignores community input, and many of the unstated goals and restrictions that aren't understood until after implementation.

Michael Shay said...


Local governments get too full of themselves sometimes and forget who it is they're serving. I've seen that and you are right to be suspicious. Citizen input often is treated as a nuisance.

You've done your homework. I'll do mine. Thanks for your comments.