The Stupidity of Smart Growth

BOZEMAN, Mont. — One would think that leaving Southern California for a week in Montana would be the equivalent of leaving the asylum and getting into the real world for a while. Unfortunately, my visit to Bozeman shows the degree to which socialist-inspired insanity is gripping the entire United States.

Be afraid, be very afraid.

Bozeman is a charming city of about 32,000 people north of Yellowstone park, and in a picturesque valley surrounded by some of the finest north country scenery in the continental United States. It’s home to Montana State University, which brings another 12,000 people to town. The city has a fine old downtown that gives an outsider a clue to the strangeness I reference above.

Walk along Main Street and one finds the Army and Navy store, stores that sell hunting gear, old bars and other remnants of rural culture next to stores and restaurants of the sort one would find in Pasadena, San Francisco, Olympia or Denver. There’s a nifty sushi bar, a trendy stereo store, the normal gift stores for tourists and lots of trendiness, from microbreweries to vegetarian health food places.

Drive through the town and one finds the expected four-wheel-drive Ford pickups, but the town also is overrun with little Subarus, Audis, Saabs and other reminders that the city isn’t the backwater that it used to be. I’ve got no problem with upscale cars, vegetarian restaurants or sushi bars. They serve a market, and as a visitor the interesting food and shopping choices are more enjoyable than the standards found in, say, my wife’s coal-mining town: drab diners and utilitarian shopping meant to serve a not-too-choosy, not-too-affluent clientele.

I’ve even got no problem with granola-eaters, Birkenstock-wearers and the like. Hey, they’ve got as much right to be here as I do, although I find their culture far more alien than the immigrant cultures that surround me in Southern California. My problem is with the political power these newcomers exert in towns like Bozeman, and the way they use that power to dictate how everyone else should live.

Like other scenery-rich Western towns, Bozeman has attracted outdoors-oriented people from across the country, especially from affluent Western cities. The university also draws academics and researchers from all over the country. In Orange County, Calif., then-Gov. Pat Brown helped create a university (University of California-Irvine) in that conservative area with the stated goal of making the county more liberal. But UCI is one small part of a 3-million-population county. It has its impact on Irvine, which is run by left-wing council members, but hasn’t changed the overall flavor of the county. In cities such as Bozeman, a university of 12,000 can, in and of itself, transform the character of the city. Now the newcomers are cementing in the changes, electing to office officials committed to the philosophy of Smart Growth.

It’s one of the most evil and selfish philosophies out there, but it also is gaining steam throughout the country. I’ve ridiculed its ideas as officials try to implement it in the urbanized Los Angeles basin, but I never viewed it as a serious threat to change the living patterns of that massively populated, predominantly suburban region. It is driving up costs and harming some places, but it is more of a side show in a region where growth is driven by many factors.

But in Bozeman and other small places, the Smart Growthers, or New Urbanists, have the ability to really mess things up.

Basically, Smart Growth argues that the way America is developing is unhealthy, unsustainable and destructive of the environment. Advocates of this philosophy hold an ideal that isn’t entirely without its appeal. They like to see vibrant downtowns, surrounded by settled neighborhoods, communities in which individuals aren’t dependent on the automobile. They rail against the often-unattractive strip developments of which all of us are familiar.

I share some criticisms of current planning, given how much it is driven by government subsidies. In fact, my new book details the way that cities subsidize and use eminent domain on behalf of Costco, stadiums and other private developers at the expense of settled neighborhoods and small-town businesses. But the Smart Growthers want to use government and subsidies and eminent domain to promote their alternative vision. It’s particularly dangerous because this philosophy has become firmly rooted in the planning departments at universities and in city halls virtually everywhere in the country. The League of Cities, the American Planning Association and other groups that influence government officials who make development decisions are completely onboard this heavy-handed philosophy.

Bozeman is an interesting case study because it is small and because the Smart Growthers have strong control of the city and strong support from the granola-eaters who have moved to the city.

A few ideas are OK and consistent with free markets. The city, for instance, has reduced zoning restrictions downtown to allow for taller buildings and more mixed-use projects. That has created some problems as city planners have tried to impose apartment complexes on single-family neighborhoods, but the general idea of reducing government restrictions on lot sizes, set-backs and so forth is reasonable.

The city also has gone wild with mandates, for instance, requiring that all downtown businesses have only retail or restaurants at street level. That’s absurd, but the real problem is that city and county officials are trying to stop suburban growth around the city by imposing Portland-style growth controls. Officials insist that new developments are far more densely packed than the market demands. Smart Growth philosophy demands that open space be set aside from development and people be crammed together in dense developments. People are treated like blight, and the goal is the preservation of open land at all costs.

The county on Nov. 2 passed an open-space bond that spends 10 million tax dollars to buy conservation easements. A local land trust has been convincing ranchers to give up their development rights on the land in exchange for federal tax breaks, and now they can use county tax money to bribe the land owners. The land trust folks claim the goal is to save wildlife and build contiguous wildlife corridors and so forth. But I drove past some of the ranches that have sold their development rights, and they tend not to be particularly attractive properties. The real goal is to create a green line around the city so that growth cannot take place outside the city limits.

If these easements were done in a purely market-oriented manner, it would be OK. I wouldn’t complain if tax dollars weren’t involved. In fact, the free-market Property and Environment Research Center in Bozeman, where I have spent a few days doing research, has been studying these easements as a possible alternative to command-and-control regulations that deprive ranch owners of their rights without paying compensation.

On a practical level, these Smart Growth policies are counterproductive. Restricting growth in the city, or creating unattractive high-density projects in a place awash in open space, only pushes people farther out into the countryside. In Belgrade, eight miles away, one finds market-driven suburban-style subdivisions. That city does not have many restrictions, and those who cannot afford Bozeman or who want a bigger place simply move away, thus promoting the sprawl that Smart Growthers are trying to stop.

We see that in Orange County. As governments impose new restrictions (for many reasons, including sprawl control), they drive up the price of housing. Working-class people then drive into the Inland Empire — lower-cost areas in San Bernardino and Riverside counties — and must commute back to Orange and Los Angeles counties for their jobs.

Most appalling in Bozeman: The newcomers who sold their houses in the Silicon Valley and Seattle have plenty of money to buy the fancy log houses on 20 acres with views of the mountain ranges. Now that they are here they are doing everything they can to a) stop newcomers from coming; b) force anyone without their income levels to live in drab high-density housing. They get their piece of the Montana Dream, and everyone else can take a hike. (Well, at least the planners are building lots of trails!)

These policies also cause division and anger. People born and raised in the town who want to have an economic future for themselves and their kids are finding limited opportunities as the wealthy newcomers who view the area as a playground are hostile to new industry and development. So much for "building community." It’s all about protecting their own aesthetic preferences and dressing it up as protecting the environment for the future.

Bozeman’s anti-growth fixation is bizarre to me. Here we have a vast valley with only a handful of people and those here believe it is being ruined by sprawl. I live in a basin that’s home to nearly 17 million people, and still find plenty of open space, dramatic vistas … and room for others. Then again, my focus is on freedom and opportunity, not on using the government to protect what I like, but don’t own.

Libertarians need to confront the Smart Growth phenomenon now, as it sprawls across the nation.

Steven Greenhut (send him mail) is a senior editorial writer and columnist for the Orange County Register. He is the author of the new book, Abuse of Power.