The Trust Land Canard

The nature and purpose of state trust lands has to be one of the more misunderstood subtopics within the larger public lands conversation. I’m certain that much of the confusion about trust lands is simply due to a lack of knowledge on a somewhat arcane subject, but there is no doubt that this confusion is also magnified and cynically exploited by mainstream environmentalists. A clear case in point, from a profile of Congressman Rob Bishop published this summer:

To critics, … handing over the American public’s land to states just doesn’t make environmental sense. “The state of Utah does a terrible job of managing the land it has,” says Scott Groene, executive director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. “They sold half of the land they were granted at statehood. They have trashed most of the land they still own.” States neither have the money nor impetus for environmental protection, many critics say. When times grow tight, they argue, the temptation to sell off the land to the private sector is too great. Within the last two years alone, Utah has sold several parcels of state land to the highest bidder.

— Solomon, C. Environmentalists’ Public-Lands Enemy Number One. Outside Magazine.

Distilled to its essence, the argument here is that Utah would be a terrible manager of any land transferred to the state by the federal government in the future because it has been a terrible manager of the land it received in the past. The main problem with this argument is that it is based on a false premise, namely that there is categorical equivalence between the lands granted to states at statehood and lands retained by the federal government and managed by agencies like the Forest Service, BLM and National Park Service.

The truth, however, which is certainly known by a professional environmentalist like Groene and should be known by a journalist like Solomon, is that the lands granted to states as they entered the union — starting with Ohio in 1803 — are not actually state or public lands in any meaningful sense of the term. Instead, states took title to these lands only as trustee, with beneficial title belonging to specific, named beneficiaries. As such, these lands were never meant to be managed according to administrative law for the benefit of the general public, but according to trust law principles for the economic benefit of the named beneficiaries, mostly public schools. Some version of this mandate is typically codified in state enabling acts and/or constitutions, giving this distinction the force of law, not mere policy preference.

So for Groene and Solomon to cite the development or sale of trust lands as evidence of any state’s inability to manage land for anything other than economic purposes is not just irrelevant, but is actually a perversion of the fact that the economic use of trust lands was, from the beginning, their entire reason for being.

Demagoguing Resource Extraction

The other day, the Tribune published another broadside on the GOP’s drive to revise the monument. It included this note:

3. There are no real energy resources anywhere in Bears Ears

Last session, the Utah Legislature called for the repeal of the Bears Ears Monument citing, among other reasons, the way it would impede the plentiful energy extraction, sapping revenue that otherwise could flow into the state’s school system.

But one of the most striking things when you look at the state’s Bears Ears maps is how, aside from a band of uranium deposits north of the buttes, there really are no energy or mineral resources to speak of anywhere inside the monument — no coal, no oil, no gas, not even any potash.

You can see the area speckled with oil wells that have been drilled over the years, but the oil just isn’t there.

Then you look east, over Comb Ridge that forms the boundary for the monument, and it is a bonanza. It’s almost like, when the monument was designated, the boundaries weren’t arbitrary and the Interior Department drew the borders to avoid damaging the potential jobs and wealth in the county.

Neat how that works, right?

The information in the map undermines the argument the monument is costing San Juan County and the state jobs — but that doesn’t mean they’ll stop complaining about it.

My Comment

Every once in a while, monument advocates have trotted out the argument advanced here: that monument designation won’t cause local economic harm by reducing energy and mineral development in San Juan County because, after all, there isn’t anything of value to drill or mine inside the monument. (See also this page for another example of the argument.)

It always strikes me as a bit odd when this observation about the lack of energy or mineral resources west of Highway 191 is made by the same groups and publications that ordinarily argue that the monument is the only thing standing between a pristine San Juan County and oil pumps as far as the eye can see. (For just a few examples, see here, here, and here.)

Still, as far as it goes, it is refreshing when monument proponents make this argument because it is basically true. It also happens to be a core argument of many monument opponents: since there is substantially nothing worth drilling for or mining inside the monument, monument designation is redundant in terms of precluding those land uses.

Some monument opponents are even aware that:

1. Oil and gas production in San Juan County peaked 30 years before the monument was designated, and is down by one-half and two-thirds, respectively, from those highs [source].

2. A total of around 15,000 acres of the BLM’s Monticello Planning Area  — well under 1% of the total acreage — has ever been disturbed for oil or gas drilling and, as implied by point #1 above, old wells are being abandoned at about twice the rate as new ones are being drilled [source].

Taken together, it seems like the reclamation of abandoned well sites would be a more relevant and impactful environmental goal than tagging non-productive land with a superfluous monument designation.

Selling San Juan: Part 6

An essay on New West gentrification and the feasibility of preserving community self-determination in San Juan County after the designation of Bears Ears National Monument.

Part 6: Growth and the Not-Entirely-Invisible Hand

The previous parts of the essay have been an attempt to thoroughly describe amenity migration and its underlying socioeconomic logic.  This part is more prescriptive and narrowly focused on development processes.  The six observations below are primers on topics that profoundly affect the particulars of growth, but typically only do so in a submerged, poorly understood way.

1.  There are no silver bullets.

Understanding that the post-war template of car-centric development is problematic is an important first step.  But avoiding car-centric development is not as simple as adopting a replacement checklist.  Towns are a kind of organism and their fate is determined by a nearly infinite range of interdependent variables.  Also, no existing place starts from scratch; the communities of San Juan County already have a legacy culture and development pattern from which their future will stem.

For these and other reasons, I am an advocate of the Strong Towns maxim that a “smart but chaotic” approach to planning and development is much better than one that is “orderly but dumb.”  Put another way, it is a good idea to be skeptical of grand theories and master plans, and to look for ways to incorporate flexibility and feedback loops into processes of planning and development.

2.  Envision San Juan.

I think it is imperative that the communities of San Juan County review and revise their land use ordinances to make them more responsive to increased tourism and amenity migration.  In fact, I would go so far as to suggest this might be the rare instance when adopting a temporary moratorium on development may be worth considering.

I also think this type of zoning review should fit within a comprehensive county-wide land use planning effort along the lines of Envision Utah or Vision Dixie.  The process would bear some resemblance to the San Juan Land Council process, but would focus on elements entirely within local control.  LUDMA rather than FLPMA, if you will.

Such a visioning project might help repair of some of the damage done to community solidarity by the monument process.  The basis for this optimism is that a regional visioning process (1) implicitly acknowledges a shared destiny and love for San Juan County while also providing space for the real differences among its individual communities to play out at the local level; and (2) explicitly excludes the influence of groups from outside San Juan.

Of course, such a visioning process is not merely a feel-good exercise in participative democracy.  Some planning issues can only be addressed at the regional scale and many more issues are better addressed at that that level.

3.  Experts and their limitations.

The use of experts to complete the process of formulating and writing county and municipal comprehensive plans and zoning codes is a good idea.  It’s rarely a good use of a community’s time or resources to develop this particular skillset in-house.

However, a wariness of experts is healthy given that one of the prominent ways in which the modern planning and development process has gone offtrack is through extreme disciplinary specialization.  Whether it is the planner, the engineer, the economic development officer, the elected representative, or the public safety official, there has been an observable trend toward mission creep and insularity.  To overcome this tendency, someone must be empowered to ensure the sub-disciplinary parts are serving the whole and not the reverse.

It is also imperative to do some basic math as part of the process of assessing competing development patterns at the global scale.  Examples include estimating how much land will be consumed, at what rate, and with what consequences to tax revenue, housing affordability, etc. under alternative development scenarios; estimating the short- and long-term costs to maintain and replace the public works associated with the alternative scenarios; making explicit in financial terms the incentives and disincentives embedded in tax and regulatory policy.

4.  Sticking to the plan.

In my experience, it is pretty rare for even a highly imperfect comprehensive planning process to yield a really bad plan.  That’s because comprehensive plans are prepared in the cold light of day when macro threats, opportunities and constraints are front-and-center and narrower interests are subordinate.  When viewed from the big picture and the long term, most people tend to substantially agree on what constitutes a desirable outcome for their community.

The real challenge is the tactical problem of sticking to the adopted plan, since doing so requires faithful, disciplined adherence to the community’s putative vision to many specific land use applications by many different people across many years.  City staff, planning commissions and councils inevitably turn over; Nimbyism is real and it is powerful.  These reasons, and not any deficiency of the comprehensive plan itself, are why the typical actual outcome of development departs from plan to such a significant and disappointing degree.

5.  Small-scale, incremental growth. Always.

One of the defining characteristics of the post-war development pattern is the way it departs from a centuries-long pattern of gradual, granular growth in favor of a systemic bias toward “lumpy,” large-scale projects.  When, for example, the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker are horizontally integrated into a big box store or when they take the form of franchisees of national brands taking up tenancy in the local mall, certain negative consequences are predictable if not inevitable.

On the front end, barriers to new entry are raised by large-scale development to a level that completely shuts out the small-time operator.  Big buildings on big lots require big money during the development and construction phase, as well as during the subsequent lifespan of business operation.  So, if “Bigness” is the form of growth San Juan County encourages, on purpose or by accident, it will almost certainly be fueled disproportionately by out-of-town money pursuing business models built on car traffic.  By contrast, smaller buildings on smaller lots designed primarily with pedestrian traffic in mind are within the reach of many more would-be developers and small business owners, some of whom already live in San Juan County.

Image: Strong Towns, Johnny Sanphillippo.

At the end of the lifespan of a large-scale project, like when all the value is extracted from the mall or big box center, a town is left with a giant empty husk that goes radically negative on a tax-versus-services basis and is difficult or impossible to retrofit as a more human-oriented, flexible space.  In general, the process of depreciation and obsolescence of a large-scale project occurs all at once and its upkeep and disposition involves the motivations of a single (usually institutional) property owner.

By contrast, providing an evolutionary advantage to “Smallness” intrinsically elevates the “smart but chaotic” preference for multiple, non-fatal bets.  If a single store on Main Street goes out of business, its failure is generally limited to that space; it doesn’t take the entire street or neighborhood down with it.  If donuts can’t make a go of it from a given storefront, maybe burritos can.  Whereas Big is brittle, Small is supple.

Granted, the degree of risk faced by San Juan County on this front may seem relatively low — malls and big box stores are not feasible in SJC — but it is still incredibly important that the community think hard about the tradeoffs between local versus absentee ownership, the difference between building a community for people rather than cars, and how to encourage the construction of buildings that will stand the test of time as beloved community objects instead of flimsy monuments to planned obsolescence.

6.  Empower locals (more “win points” for incrementalism).

Image: Strong Towns.

The perception is that starting almost any business these days takes a lot of money and expertise.  This perception is even stronger when that business is development.  And of course there is truth to this.  However, it is also true that this perception is partly a practical and cognitive byproduct of the predominance of globalized capitalism and the suburban growth pattern, both of which are characterized by scale economies.  Remember, car-centric development was not the norm for most of human history and until very recently, development was a set of activities undertaken primarily by ordinary people using the materials and technology commonly available at the time.

So, the task before a place like San Juan County is not to invent a completely new model of development as much as it is to undo or reverse certain biases toward Bigness and to awaken the latent tendency among locals toward independence and DIY-ness.  I believe it is a worthy and absolutely realistic goal to create a systemic bias that enables the local person who loves their community and looks at the boarded up gas station or vacant lot and thinks “someone ought to do something about that,” to… actually do something about that.

Here are three specific places to start: don’t treat the small, simple project the same as the large, complex one for purposes of zoning and building approvals; at least consider reflecting in the impact fee and/or tax code the economic and environmental advantages of adding an incrementally more intense mixture of productive uses to the existing system of public works compared with expanding the system of public works to new, widely-spaced, monofunctional residential areas; facilitate sound how-to instruction of the knowledge necessary to get started as a small-scale developer.

Parting Thoughts

Note that all of the observations above are based on the premise of growth — that there will be increased tourism and migration to San Juan County now that it has been amenitized by the Bears Ears designation.  Is it possible to either stimulate or blunt this new demand?  Yes, of course.

But I think it is unwise to assume that maintaining status quo is a realistic possibility.  I also think it would amount to insult on top of injury if tourism and amenity migration largely displaces locals physically, culturally or economically, or if the new demand for San Juan County is met primarily by businesses in towns on the periphery of the county and carpetbaggers.  More optimistically, the influx of interest and capital represents not just a threat but an opportunity to the residents of the county.


Select sources & additional reading:

Little Valley Case Study

Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.

— Mike Tyson

For the past five years, Little Valley has been the fastest growing area of Washington County and among the fastest in Utah. In just the past year, ending first quarter 2017, there were a little over 500 new homes built and occupied within the Desert Hills High School boundary, which is dominated by Little Valley. The pace of growth in this part of St. George means that we have urbanized a large, discrete area very quickly. In fact, we are now close enough to the end of the planning and development process that it is possible to step back and consider what the finished outcome will be.

Photo: The Spectrum

Land Use Summary

Residential900 Acres
Total # of Homes2,185
Single-Family Detached100%
Residential Density2.1 Homes per Acre
Commercial3.5 Acres
Elementary School12 Acres
Parks15 Acres
Open Space95 Acres
City Impact Fees$13.5 Million
WCWCD Impact Fees$15.7 Million


The Plan Versus Reality

This development outcome represents a significant departure from the municipal and regional master plans for the area. The most detailed relevant master plan is the Little Valley Sub Area Plan completed in 2007. The Sub Area Plan was written concurrently with the Vision Dixie Regional Plan for Washington County, with the Little Valley plan being a site-specific application of the regional plan’s tilt toward traditional (pre-war) development principles.

Specifically, the Sub Area Plan anticipated that about 55% of the new homes built in Little Valley would be low density single-family residences and that the entire planning area would achieve a gross density of around 3.8 homes per acre. This is frankly a pretty low residential density figure by traditional development standards, but compares with an implemented reality of 100% single-family residences, including a high number of homes on very large lots of 15,000 square feet or more, and a gross density of 2.1 homes per acre.

This significant departure from plan was not done explicitly after careful consideration of the costs and benefits of such a change of course, but through simple capitulation to Nimbys.

Live By The Car, Die By The Car

For an urbanized area of about 1,000 acres, Little Valley is an incredibly monofunctional, car-dependent form of land use.

This part of St. George has an average household size of about 3, which means it is fast approaching a total build-out population of around 6,500. This is about the same as the total population of Ivins and a bit more than towns like Kanab and Moab. And yet, because of the low number of total residences in Little Valley, there are limited civic land uses and just one small commercial corner.

This large-scale monofunctionality makes life in Little Valley extremely car dependent. From the heart of Little Valley — Crimson Ridge and 3000 East — it is three miles to the closest supermarket. (A significant commercial project may be developed at the intersection of 2450 South and 3000 East in the next few years, which will drop the distance to a supermarket and similar services to one mile. When completed, this new project will reduce travel time but not really reduce trips or otherwise fundamentally change Little Valley’s extreme car dependence.)

Unintended Consequences

The second order effects of departing from the 2007 master plan are striking in terms of both quality-of-life and public finance measures.

Quality of Life

A more efficient, compact development pattern would have considerably reduced water usage and created the critical mass of population necessary at the neighborhood scale to support a greater mix of civic and commercial land uses. By extension, a greater number of residents occupying the same land area would have resulted in more tolerable traffic conditions by reducing both the number and length of necessary car trips.

The Little Valley Sub Area Plan also anticipated much more recreation and park space. In practice, the choice was made to essentially privatize open space (in large individual lots) rather than aggregate it and make it a community amenity in the form of public parks.

Public Finance

These effects are easier to quantify than the lifestyle effects but no less eye-opening. Each new residential building permit requires the payment of $6,156 in impact fees to the city[1] and a bit more than that to the Washington County Water Conservancy District. These figures multiplied by the 2,185 new homes in Little Valley generate the combined impact fee total of about $29 million shown in the table.

That’s a lot of money, but adherence to the Sub Area Plan would have generated close to $20 million more from the same acreage just from additional residential development. In addition, the traditional development pattern enables neighborhood commercial uses, and commercial impact fees are charged at a higher rate than residential.

In rough terms, the same area could have generated not roughly $30 million but more like $55-$60 million to pay for things like water development, parks, public safety facilities, regional storm drain and sewer treatment facilities, etc. So, the primary short term public finance consequence of departing from plan is the loss to the community of a really big carrot.

The long term consequence will be a very unpleasant encounter with the stick: roughly the same system of public works that would have been required by the Sub Area Plan now serves a vastly smaller tax base. Today’s challenge of paying for the replacement of crumbling Bloomington Drive and the water line underneath it will seem like child’s play compared with dealing with the maintenance and replacement costs associated with the public works in Little Valley in 30 years or so.

[1]  The standard St. George impact fee per single-family residence is $9,802, but the power impact fee of $3,646 is not paid to St. George City in Little Valley, since it is within the Dixie Power service area.

Selling San Juan: Part 5

An essay on New West gentrification and the feasibility of preserving community self-determination in San Juan County after the designation of Bears Ears National Monument.

Part 5: My Town, Inc.

A city or town is, among other things, a corporation defined by its geographic boundary.  The residents of the town are its shareholders and the prosperity of the municipal corporation is essentially a function of the productivity of the real estate within its city limits.  Given the differential costs and benefits associated with distinct development patterns, it follows that local land use policy is one of the key variables in determining not just the physical identity and social conditions of a place but also its long term fiscal resilience.  As unpoetic as these observations may be, it is imperative to confront them explicitly.

America’s Suburban Experiment

In many respects, the proliferation of the New West ranchette is simply an extreme expression of the suburban development pattern that dominates the landscape of post-1945 America.  A deeper understanding of the modern suburban development pattern is therefore a good starting point for better understanding the tradeoffs associated with the typical New West development pattern.

Comparing the underlying logic of the suburban experiment with what prevailed before about 1945 can be fairly reduced to a single distinction: for all of human history before 1945, development was organized around the human being; since 1945, the organizing unit is the automobile.  This single shift, aided and abetted by essentially the entire American financial and political apparatus, has given us a built environment notable for, among other things, its extreme monofunctionality and rapid consumption of land.  Fine lines are now brightly drawn between industrial, commercial and residential land uses, and between the rich, middle-class and poor.  Also, much more space between all types of productive land use is required for (and enabled by) the use and storage of our cars.  This shift has made it broadly infeasible or even illegal to develop land according to a resilient, flexible neighborhood form and has effectively killed a wide range of time-tested affordable housing types.  That this shift in the logic of development has also planted a time bomb within the balance sheet of the typical municipal corporation is only now becoming widely apparent.

When a new subdivision is built, substantially all of the improvements — utilities, pavement, curb-and-gutter, sidewalk, etc. — are constructed at the expense of the private developer (which are, in turn, bundled into the price of a finished building lot or home) and then dedicated to the public.  This is the essence of greenfield development and, on its face, it seems like a great deal for the city and its residents: a free bump to total public assets plus an expanded tax base plus usually the payment of impact fees or other exactions on development.  The only hitch is that this process also effectively puts a long term liability on the city’s balance sheet in the form of the maintenance and eventual replacement of the constructed improvements.  The (unasked) municipal finance question becomes whether the new revenue stream associated with the new land use at least matches the new liability. And the answer, when it comes to the suburban development pattern, is that it doesn’t and it isn’t even close.  The phenomenon is fully exposed in an extremely detailed study of the city of Lafayette, Louisiana, by a team of experts at this analysis.

Joe, Josh and I interviewed all the city’s department heads and key staff. We gathered as much data as we could (they had a lot). We analyzed and then mapped out all of the city’s revenue streams by parcel. We then did the same for all of the city’s expenses. This was the most comprehensive geographic analysis of a city’s finances that I’ve ever seen completed. When we finished, we had a three dimensional map showing what parts of the city generated more revenue than expense (in business terms, this would be called profit) and what parts of the city generated more expense than revenue (again, in business terms, this is considered a loss).

Here’s that map. In accounting terms, green equals profit and red equals loss. The higher the block goes, the larger the amount of profit/loss. If you have a sense of the basic layout of North American cities post World War II, you can figure out pretty easily what is going on here.

Text & Image: Urban3/Strong Towns

A few easily-understood metrics calculated by the consultants further reveal the root of the problem: between 1949 and 2015, while Lafayette’s population grew by 350%, the city’s feet of culinary water pipe per person increased by 1,000% and its fire hydrants per 1,000 people by 2,140%.  In effect, as Lafayette shifted from relatively compact traditional development to the rambling suburban form, all the increase in top-line wealth was outstripped several times over by the expenses of a radically expanded system of public works.  The consultants calculated that the imbalance had become so extreme that to catch up with the city’s maintenance obligations would require a property tax increase of 533%, an impossible figure.  In sum, an extended period of robust growth had led not to the enrichment of the city but to its impoverishment if not insolvency, a circumstance which is not unusual in the least in America.

Note that this phenomenon is an axiomatic consequence of the post-war development pattern.  It can’t be blamed on low property values; in fact, the math almost always reveals that the poor neighborhoods of a city subsidize the affluent.  It is also not an issue of savvy versus incompetent city administration, nor simply a function of commercial property subsidizing residential.  In fact, in a head-to-head comparison of commercial land uses, the car-centric form fares even worse.

Image: Urban3/Congress for the New Urbanism

So, not only does a big box store like Walmart impoverish a community directly by crushing the locally-owned mom-and-pop retailers of Main Street and siphoning profits out of the local economy, but indirectly by returning a pittance in taxes on an apples-to-apples (i.e. per-acre) basis, all while reinforcing car dependence and consuming a massive chunk of a city’s stock of land. It’s fair to say this is a better deal for Walmart than for the town.

The next parts of the essay will delve with more detail into a discussion of some of the tactical topics raised by the broad shift to a suburban development pattern, with particular focus on its expression in the gentrifying rural West.  This will bring me (finally) to some of the “things to watch” in San Juan County post-Bears Ears designation.  But this brief introduction to the financial implications of the choice between traditional and suburban development patterns is a necessary detour for understanding some of the stakes associated with being more precise when we talk about “development.”


Select sources & additional reading:
Much of this part of the essay is a selective summary of a particular strand of critical thinking about urbanism that is gaining increasing traction across North America.  Two allied individuals and the organizations they lead deserve particular credit for synthesizing and communicating this approach.  A more capacious introduction to their work can be found at these links:
Marohn, C. Curbside Chat. Strong Towns.
Minicozzi, J. The City Shaped. Urban3.