Public Land Use Planning from the Victim’s Point of View.

My distrust of “Land Use Management” did not arise out of some LIbertarian screed, rather it grew out of seeing the insensitivity of Planners to what the market place and human flourishing dictated.

Over 10 years ago, my wife and I became one of the minor victims of Planning and Zoning in Grand Rapids. We owned 3 acres of mostly swamp on the East Beltline SE and foresaw selling it as the kids moved on. The property to our south, a magnificent seven acres on high ground and wooded, was for sale and we thought we’d piggy back onto that obvious big deal.

We and that neighbor were surrounded by office buildings and a half mile from Woodland and Eastbrook malls.  Neither of us had garbage collection, water/sewer connections, public schools, parks or grocery stores, but nevertheless we were zoned residential when commercial or even industrial seemed reasonable. The owners of the seven acres tried repeatedly to change the zoning, all  to no avail. They held out for about 12 years but finally acceded to city planning. One, infuriated by his perceived loss, called me up and asked me to buy his property instead of letting the city steal it; the price was ridiculously low but I saw no future in owning two properties coveted by unscrupulous bureaucrats.

Burton Ridge apartments, quiet, prosperous and settled rental units were on our north. They owned 40 acres of developable land behind us that were platted and prepared for apartment construction at least twice. Burton Ridge and those 40 acres were the victims of spoliation, bluntly stated.

The city plans, based on some transient theory, dictated a low income housing project be built in a nicer part of town for some flakey social purpose or another, and sure enough, the buildings went up on the neighboring seven acres and were occupied. Things started to disappear and were vandalized in our garage. I tried to institute security to no avail. Burton Ridge renters were really aggravated. I heard complaints of attempted break ins, cars damaged and of confrontations with young thugs. The two long term occupants that I knew by name left.

About a year after the housing project was finished, the developer, wanting to build another 36 units on our plot, approached us with an offer that was $100,000 short of our asking, but it was better than nothing so we took it. Best thing that we ever did since it got us out of the high tax, no services City of Grand Rapids and into Fox Chase Condos in Kentwood with it’s low taxes and a wonderful life style. We count ourselves winners. It was worth more than the $100,000 just to get rid of the aggravation arising from our new neighbors.

The owners of Burton Ridge lost good renters and the the 40 acres of land behind us has and will not be developed; who would? The last I looked, their property is now isolated by a high barbed wire fence. The mainly elderly occupants who moved had to find new lives elsewhere; their lives were disrupted. These are among the costs calculated in those two Economist articles (1 and 2) that are imposed on poor people by urban Planning and Zoning.

But the insult imposed on me by GR zoning and planning commission was not in having to move and maybe missing out on a few bucks. I understand that you have to crack a few eggs to make an omelet, (Stalin?) and what right do I have to brood my egg when great social goods need to be satisfied at the expense of tax paying property owners?

No, the outrage inherent in land use management became apparent after we agreed to sell.

The developer, call him Charlie, was a 40 year old from Cleveland, a nice guy who would fly in GRR to steer the project through to completion. I figured his take at 10% of our portion of the project, about 120K less expenses. I got to be his buddy citing my erstwhile real estate license and willingness to learn how the business worked.

The cloven hoof first appeared when a young fellow with hot,  burning fanatical eyes, showed up with his brand new SUV identifying him as “An Environmental Engineer.” He asked permission and then spent 3 days wandering our 3 acres. He wanted to see my basement with its old paint cans and epoxy left over from building boats, and then clucked his disapproval. On the second day, he called in a consultant and I overheard them saying “Of course it’s wetland, look at those trilliums!” (Had I known, I would have mowed that portion of lawn or spread Scotts weed and feed to make it dry land, but wet lands it would be.)The environmental engineer proceeded to mark off most of the front and sides of our acreage. There was not much room for 36 apartments and things looked grim, but not for long! Two weeks later, the engineer re-appeared and sheepishly moved all of his flags at least 75 feet down the lawn and toward the swamp, room enough for our project to proceed. Oh, and then, when the plans changed a year later, he re-appeared and moved the flags to the north side of the property to accommodate a parking lot and road. Strange how wetlands change, but who am I to impute financial pressures that may have suborned our environmentalist when it was necessary to accomplish the great societal good?

Charlie took me to at least two city planning commission meeting where he presented his case. He was introduced as “a developer who is well known….skilled…does good projects” as though this were necessary to convince the unelected planning commission. He and I would sit at the back where he would mock some of the commissioners, telling me what each would say and the like. Not that the commissioners didn’t make fools of themselves on their own. One mentioned that the current recommendation that he’d read about was for office buildings be next to the road and parking placed behind the building.

The commissioners all called Charlie by his first name, and he knew each by their official title. Cozy, you might say.

The project went through. Kris and I did have to drive to Okemos for the closing; seems that Charlie was in Michigan that day to play golf. I was too polite to enquire further.

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