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Thursday, February 2, 2006
Notes on Utah Senate Bill 170

What's State Senator Al Mansell's agenda, anyway? And was he really kidding?

A Salt Lake Tribune story yesterday (also mentioned in American Fork City Councilman Shirl LeBaron's blog yesterday) puts a whole new spin on SB 170, the bill state Senator Al Mansell proposed to enslave local governments in Utah to developers.

According to the Tribune's  report, the bill would bar cities from basing zoning decisions on aesthetics, efforts to control congestion, or public outcry. It would impose some time limits on city responses to applications and would prevent cities from including application-related staff costs in the calculation of impact fees imposed on developers. Naturally, cities and towns statewide threw a fit, and I don't blame them. Developers are not inherently bad or unnecessary. They are necessary cogs in the economic machine. But government of the people, by the developers, and for the developers is not my idea of sound local government. Without some binding restrains on development (to guide it, not prevent it), we get neighborhoods and cities which are hard to live in, or at least will be, in two or three decades.

Anyway, now Senator Mansell says, he didn't mean it. He just wanted to draw everyone's attention to the widespread mistreatment of developers. The bill will be redrafted with reasonable proposals. According to the Tribune, here's "what's left of SB 170":

  • Notice: Cities must tell landowners of zoning changes that will impact their property.
  • Clocks: Cities will be given timelines for project reviews that must be met.
  • Disclosure: City reports have to be given to developers three days before public hearings.
  • Accounting: Cities must track impact fees to ensure their proper use.
  • Rules: Cities must follow their own zoning ordinances and general plans.

If this report is accurate as to legislative intent, and if the bill actually does these things in reasonable ways and doesn't do anything outlandish, it will be a fine bill and I will hope for its passage. In fact, all of these things seem like no-brainers with or without legislation. Why would we want our local government to be less efficient or professional than this?

Still, the "just kidding, wanted to send a message" confession leaves me with some thoughts and questions.

First, not only is Mansell a commercial real estate agent, as the Tribune says. He's the uber-agent; last year he was president of the National Assocation of Realtors (NAR), the 5000-pound gorilla in the real estate world. (NAR happens to have the US Justice Department -- also here -- wondering lately about possible antitrust violations, price-fixing, and other anticompetitive activities.) More significantly, if he's not also a developer himself, then at least he's closely tied to developers and stands to benefit financially (not just a little) from any steps in the general direction of handing over our local governments to developers, as originally proposed.

Second, how much of my tax money was spent on printing and processing this allegedly bogus bill? How much valuable legislator and city official time was spent opposing it? If you don't know it's just a message bill, you have to honor the threat.

Third, the "just kidding" spin seems awfully convenient. Sometimes the most convenient explanation isn't the real one. One wonders if Mansell intended to get whatever he could get quietly for the developers, with the alternative of using the "just kidding" escape if a furor arose. Hard to say. But it's true that the longer the bill, the less likely it is that people (including legislators and journalists) will read it, and this one was pretty long. (Is the moral to the story something about eternal vigilance being the price of freedom or whatever?)

Fortunately, if he's done nothing else positive in this context so far, Mansell has guaranteed that the promised, reasonable form of the bill will be read carefully. One thing we should read it for -- besides hidden land mines -- is any attempt to absolve developers of paying the costs they and their developments impose on municipalities.

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