Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Nowhere to Hide--Part I

About 10 years ago, our uber-liberal state senator Eliot Shapleigh was in the middle of a long war to close ASARCO--the copper smelter that had operated in El Paso, Texas for about 90 years.  As he and his anti-ASARCO co-horts forced the company out of the city, the EPA came in right on their heels promising to clean up all the environmental damage done by the smelter to the adjacent parts of the city.

As the past president of the El Paso Association of Mortgage Brokers, I was invited to the community meetings where the EPA proposed remapping westside El Paso, central El Paso, and downtown El Paso into a "superfund" so that the EPA could perform clean up.  They promised that in any superfund area, their agents would remove about 18 inches of contaminated top soil and replace it with new clean top soil.  They would replace the plants.  In short, this sounded like an opportunity for residents of the affected areas to get brand new landscaping at the federal government's (AKA the taxpayers) expense.

As we continued to attend the meetings, we began to notice that the EPA's map appeared to be growing.  Rather than just being concerned with the areas immediately next to ASARCO, the EPA was now talking about expanding the Superfund area to include high cost areas such as Rim Road--an exclusive neighborhood comprised of homes built in the 1920s on amazing view lots--and it's less expensive but still desirable cousin Kern Place.  The map continued to grow until it encompassed much of downtown El Paso.

All the EPA needed was for the residents of El Paso to agree voluntarily to have their neighborhoods listed in Superfund and then the spending could begin.  But as we researched the Superfund issues, we discovered that there was a problem--a huge problem--which the EPA had neglected to share with the residents during its prolonged sales pitch.

I was not able to attend the final meeting because of a conflicting appointment, but my mother, Joyce, who is an owner of our business and had attended all of the meetings to that point, agreed to go in my place. And on that last day she stood to her feet and informed the residents who were now lusting after new top soil and fresh plants that if they agreed to put their homes into the Superfund, they would have to live with one very profound consequence.  "Homes in a Superfund cannot obtain financing through Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac," she told them.  "That means that for as long as this clean up takes, you will not be able to refinance your homes.  You will not be able to sell your homes. You are married to these properties for however many years this takes."

The members of the community at the meeting were stunned, but when they looked to the representative of the EPA for confirmation, they knew that this new piece of information was the truth. "Well, in Chicago, a local bank does all of the loans for these properties," she sputtered.

"That means portfolio financing, which is very hard to get and usually very expensive," my mother reiterated. "Fannie and Freddie will not buy loans on these properties, so you are going to have to understand that before you do this.  We don't know how long this process will take.  It may take many years.  Are you willing to live with that?"

After getting some confirmation that this was the truth, the group decided not to go forward with the Superfund after all.  Interestingly, in 2011 when El Paso, Texas, received the EPA's Smart Growth award, it was for the plans for the ASARCO area.  I have no doubt that had they been able to get the residents' permission to put the surrounding neighborhoods in the Superfund, all of this land would now be zoned for Smart Growth.

I was reminded of that incident this week as the El Paso City Council unanimously passed its new comprehensive plan for the city of El Paso.  The new comprehensive plan calls for Smart Growth, New Urbanism, and High Density.  Major corridors such as North Mesa Street now have overlays as transportation corridors.  I have been told by developers that these overlays will function very much as the Superfund would have in these areas.  Homes and businesses will be zoned legal non-compliant--meaning that the existing structure can stay where it is, but it cannot obtain financing and in case of a fire or damage it cannot be rebuilt as it presently exists.  If the building must be rebuilt, it must be rebuilt to "Smart Code" which requires less parking, more walkable space, and higher density structures.

El Paso, Texas, is one of approximately 550 US cities that are members of ICLEI--Local Governments for Sustainability.  ICLEI--originally The International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives--is an organization devoted to urbanizing the world.  The proponents of this urbanization believe that by forcing humans into high density cities, they will save the world by reducing the amount of human population and the individual carbon footprint of each human who remains.  ICLEI has about 1100 members worldwide, so approximately half of its membership is in the U.S. and its roster includes nearly every major city in this country.

A Huffington Post Article last week, March 2, 2012, entitled Why Has TED given the 2012 TED Prize to City 2.0?  defends New Urbanism as the 21st century salvation of our planet. "We may think of them as overcrowded places. But actually, it is the growth of cities that may ultimately allay predictions of population Armageddon.  Across the world, as people urbanize, family sizes fall dramatically. We may think of them as polluted. But actually the average carbon footprint per individual in cities is far smaller than that of those who live in suburbia and rural communities. People commute shorter distances, and by living on top of each other in smaller homes, heating and air conditioning use per household is lower."

The article goes on to say that in the next 70 years, "we'll have to build as much urban living space as in all of human history to date. That's the equivalent to a new city with a million residents, every week, for 70 years."

Unfortunately for Smart Growth planners and New Urbanists, conservatives, Libertarians and Tea Partiers are not enchanted with the idea of being stacked on top of each other like cord wood.  So to fulfill their urban fantasy, Smart Growth advocates have to use a stick and carrot approach.  This approach is basically two-fold--first, force the codes through in massive zoning rewrites, and second, eliminate other housing and transportation options.

The city of El Paso comprehensive plan was 900 pages.  It was unveiled about 6 weeks ago and as I said earlier, it passed city council unanimously.  But I wonder if, as it is implemented, the residents of this city will like the resulting micromanagement that comes from a city government that is certain it has the right and the obligation to dictate every aspect of the citizens' lives.

For examples, let's look at some other Smart Growth Communities.  A May 24, 2011, article in Newton Massachusetts tagged as "breaking news" at  states, "Aldermen and planners in the city of Newton have been reviewing the findings of a local task force which called for special retail overlay districts to promote smart growth. 'One problem we will address,' according to Ted Hess-Mahan, 'is banks on the first floor in high traffic areas. Banks can afford to pay higher rents, which can drive out the kind of mom and pop businesses we want to foster. And banks close at five, meaning they're not really contributing to the neighborhood after hours.'"  To deal with this problem, the aldermen planned to pass an ordinance requiring that banks must be located on the second floor of commercial buildings.

If that's a little too big brother for you, consider a model bylaw from the state of Massuchusetts for a transit-oriented development overlay district.  Our city's new comprehensive plan contains several transportation overlay districts on major thoroughfares, which means that the city will be able dictate exactly what types of businesses and residences can exist.  I am not saying that this model bylaw will be a specific model for our transportation overlays, but it does mirror the spirit of the Smart Growth agenda here in El Paso and nationwide.

Section 2.0 of the model bylaw plan states the purpose of the TOD Overlay District is to:

"1. Encourage a mix of moderate and high density development within walking distance of transit stations to encourage transit ridership;

2. Create a pedestrian-friendly environment to encourage walking, bicycling and transit use.

3. Provide an alternative to traditional development by emphasizing mixed-use, pedestrian-oriented development."

To accomplish these and the other stated goals, the TOD gives the city zoning department complete power over exactly what businesses and houses have a right to exist on these properties.  Below are some of the properties that would be allowed in a TOD district:


1. Apartments (Above ground in a business district)
2. Townhouses
3. Service-oriented office uses
4. Mixed uses with ground floor retail, personal services and/or service oriented offices
5. Banks
6. Retail under 10,000 square feet
7. Government buildings
8. Transit Stations
9. Restaurants (except fast food establishments which may only be authorized by special permit)


1. Auto sales, auto service and repair, auto storage and auto rentals
2. Gasoline sales
3. Manufactured homes sales
4. Industrial uses
5. Car washes
6. Strip Commercial Development
7. Mini Storage and Self-storage facilities
8. Low density housing
9. Golf Courses

(This is not an exhaustive list--I have omitted items from both lists in the interests of space in this post.  The model bylaw states the following "several zoning bylaws...from communities around the country were used to develop this bylaw.  In some instances, the language was taken verbatim from these bylaws.")

The news keeps telling us that this is our city's first comprehensive plan since 1925.  We could have waited another 100 years before turning our major streets over to the group of micromanaging, business-hating socialists that we fondly refer to as city council.  (That our government is business-hating is agreed upon by nearly everyone, but I don't have time here to explore all of the evidence for my statement.)  We can only take comfort in the bleak fact that we are by no means alone.  Smart Growth is working its way into every neighborhood, city and hamlet.  From Tulsa, Oklahoma, to Salt Lake City Utah, to Albuquerque, New Mexico, you can't hide from the forces of new urbanism.

And, unfortunately, only a handful of opponents nationwide are speaking out against it. One of these is Randal O'Toole of the CATO institute. A former Yale professor and author of Gridlock: Why We're Stuck in Traffic and What to Do About It, O'Toole does not hide his belief that, left unchecked, Smart Growth will destroy the American way of life.  O'Toole traveled to Tulsa, Oklahoma, to meet with the residents there about Smart Growth and is quoted in the Tulsa Beacon as saying this, "I want to talk about the American Dream...To own a home, start a business, to have mobility and to own property. 'Smart growth' is a threat to the American Dream."

Next week I will look at the ways in which Smart Growth proponents are forcing New Urbanism by eliminating other options for Americans in terms of housing and transportation.

Alexandra Swann's new novel, The Planner, about an out of control, environmentally-driven government is available on Kindle and in paperback. She is alxso the author of No Regrets: How Homeschooling Earned me a Master's Degree at Age Sixteen. For more information, visit her website at Frontier 2000

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