The Anti-Growth Movement Surges But Offers Few Solutions

BIA | Builder Update Magazine
Volume XXXII, Issue 7

Two separate anti-growth initiative petitions and one zoning referendum effort are ongoing or approved on the ballot in three different central Ohio communities that are strikingly similar and likely represent a trend.

In Worthington, a group called “Keep Worthington Beautiful” placed and won approval for a city charter amendment on the November 3 ballot (Issue 38) that increases the time period from 20 to 60 days to file referendum petitions to repeal Council-approved zoning legislation, and prohibit all emergency votes on zoning matters. A majority of Council opposed Issue 38 as they believe it will make Worthington less competitive in attracting development. Opponents of Issue 38 also argue the standard community comprehensive planning, deliberative public consideration at planning commission and decisions by elected Council members will become irrelevant when zoning decisions are more difficult and an easier target of the referendum process. The group behind the charter changes organized and gained support based on opposition to several recent empty nester apartment proposals.

In Powell, BIA member Arlington Homes gained a unanimous Council approval in May for 47 upscale, detached empty nester condominiums near downtown Powell at the former “Powder Room” gun range. The plan came with a key road connection to relieve traffic in the area. The organized growth opposition group in Powell collected enough signatures to refer the previous Council zoning legislation to the ballot on November 3rd. This is the same anti-growth group that organized charter amendments and won voter approval for a resident-led commission to oversee the revision of the city’s comprehensive plan. Approved in November of 2014, those provisions also ban “high-density housing” in the city’s downtown business district and the development of the 64-unit Center at Powell Crossing apartment complex just west of downtown Powell. At the time of this article, Powell voters had rescinded Council’s approval of the Arlington Homes rezoning.

In Hilliard, after Council approved a mixed use development in September that included 218 apartments and TIF legislation to fund road improvements, a sitting City Councilman and elements of the current Hilliard City Schools Board and the Norwich Township Trustees launched an initiative petition drive to place city charter amendments on the ballot next spring. The “Keep Hilliard Beautiful” initiative is also supported and fueled by several candidates for the Hilliard City Schools Board who are actively involved and advocating for charter changes to prevent passage of any zoning matter by emergency and prohibit Council from approving residential TIFs. Mayor Don Schonhardt’s Administration and the majority of the members of City Council, appear to oppose the initiative.

In Mayor Schonhardt’s words, “[i]t’s changing the form of our government from representative to a government by referendum, and if it becomes a government by referendum, we’re out of business.” Anyone in the development industry doing business in Hilliard knows that over the last decade-plus, Hilliard has been very effective at balancing residential growth with a growing commercial tax base. This has allowed many traffic and infrastructure improvements. Quality of life initiatives, such as park acquisition and regional bike trails, have been important priorities. Based on the leadership and careful planning, communities like Hilliard and Powell have harnessed positive growth to generate balanced local economies. They have recognized families and rooftops attract and create commercial opportunities. To go along with this growth and to balance it, these communities have actively sought and attracted other commercial, professional services, office and light industrial. The results are that Hilliard and Powell are nice places to live with positive local economies and appreciating property values. This approach is the opposite of the negative “drive-by” land planning that comes via one-shot referenda.

Mayor Schonhardt’s quote identifies the real problem with all three of the ballot and referenda efforts and others that will likely follow if the anti-growth virus grows. The long-term efforts and structure local governments have in place to plan for growth, seek broad community input and adapt to changing market conditions, and are hamstrung by reactive referendum and ballot efforts. The danger of “drive-by” land use decisions via voter repeal is that the larger planning context and broader policy considerations are lost. Decision consequences and policy choices are so over-simplified or not considered at all when stopping growth is offered up and accepted as a panacea to all local challenges. The problem becomes, what is next? Communities that stop growth or create barriers to new development face a rude awakening when their residents’ land and housing values stagnate and the tax base stops growing. There are examples of communities in central Ohio which have adopted slow growth plans and negatively impacted their housing sub-market for years. The day after the anti-growth initiative passes the community faces the same challenges, but likely with fewer resources and options. Those impacted the most are the local resident who needs to sell her home, the local business owner who tries to grow, or the property owner whose family paid taxes on their ground for generations and wants the highest value.

Mayors, councils and trustees are elected and exist to manage growth over time, balance housing demands with a commercial tax base and deliberatively consider the needs of the community as a whole. The era of local government funding from the statehouse or predictable federal government infrastructure spending are over. Local governments need flexible tools such as TIFs to fund traffic and other infrastructure solutions. Most city councils are very careful with emergency voting, and typically use it only when absolutely necessary.

Very few local government candidates run successfully on an anti-growth agenda because it doesn’t work and offers no long-term solutions. Such an agenda cannot fix roads or attract a commercial tax base. It creates winners and losers based on factors other than economic value, sustained effort or careful planning. In the end, it divides communities.

In the end, the Hilliard, Powell and Worthington anti-growth groups simply want to replace the typical comprehensive planning and traditional public decision making with their own individual, ad hoc judgments in a given circumstance. It’s not so much a vision for a community’s future, as it is an anti-vision that is mostly about them. The anti-vision is pursued via initiative issues and referenda that unfortunately under Ohio law are relatively easy to get on the ballot. This is combined with aggressive social media campaigns that repeat negative misinformation so often and with such zeal that the ill-informed or those who do not try to seek facts or hear another view fall in line.

Democracy amounts to a battle of ideas. There is no choice but to battle the anti-growth forces in the light of day. Increasingly, there will be the need to go toe-to-toe and compete with the over-simplification and empty promises of the anti-growth movement. Greater support will be needed for those elected and appointed officials who work to make their communities better based on professionalism, community input and a long-term positive vision. The battle will not end soon.