Some areas of North Carolina have seen tremendous growth recently. And the response seems to be that the local governments are simply relying on traditional zoning schemes to place development. The problem is that zoning tends to be too weak of an instrument to control this rapid growth and still preserve the natural heritage of the state and working farmlands. Many other areas facing similar problems have turned to a "new" tool called Urban Growth Districts to both allow planned growth and prevent some of the negative consequences of sprawl. My proposition for this post is that North Carolina should begin implementing urban growth districts before the sprawl permanently ruins the state.
First, the reason that I quoted "new" above is that these laws really are not new and were used all the way back to the 1600's in England. An early American example shows both how these laws work and that the founder's of our country understood the importance of strict planning controls even though they were facing different problems: Boston had a law dating to the 1700's that required that every lot in the city limits be developed before lots outside the limit could be developed.
That basic framework still exists in the areas that have adopted Urban Growth Districts. These districts have been adopted in Oregon, Tennessee, and Washington as well as many foreign jurisdictions. I will use Oregon for an example since I am most familiar with their laws (for a primer go here).
Oregon requires each municipality to develop an urban growth district based on population and expected growth. The size is based purely on size of population and growth expectations, and the location is based on a number of factors affecting local communities. The municipalities and counties then use these boundaries to coordinate zoning, planning, and provision for services to these areas. Essentially, it is much easier to develop inside the boundaries than outside.
These programs have been a success in Oregon, where density has increased, open space has been preserved, and they have developed a renowned public transportation system. An added bonus has been that property taxes have gone down compared to the rest of the country due to the fact that cities do not have to provide services to as wide of an area.
In fact, the only criticism of the districts seems to be that it is increasing home prices. But a number of studies have shown shown that prices have not increased due to the districts but have mainly increased due to market forces instead. Furthermore, shouldn't it be a good thing that property values have risen? First, it means that citizens are making a better return on their house investment. And it shows that the area is desirable, since in basic economic terms, people are willing to spend more to live there than elsewhere. The free market types should appreciate that the market values these controls.
So I ask you whether it is time for North Carolina to start using this tool to preserve our state and to make it a better place for all of us to live.