Maybe it’s time to loose the chains that bind development

Filed under: Hazlehurst |

Talking with a prominent local developer at last week’s “Best of” party at the Garden of the Gods Club, the discussion turned (surprise!) to the rules and regulations which govern the creation of new developments, be they 10 acres or 10,000.

The developer — let’s call him Mr. Smith — shook his head in amused dismay.

“Everything we do is rule-driven,” he said. “Street widths, where sewer lines are located, how houses are built, how they look — but we can paint ’em most any color!”

If anything, Smith understated the impact of the laws, ordinances, rules and regulations which have created suburban America.

Building codes specify, in minute detail, how houses are constructed.

If you’re a builder and would like to use innovative materials, or non-traditional methods of construction or fresh new architectural/design parameters, forget it. What you propose might have been extensively used in Germany or Brazil, but that doesn’t count. Your ideas and designs will have to be extensively, painfully and expensively vetted by unsympathetic bureaucrats at every level.

And what about all those suburban garagescapes, big houses jammed together on tiny lots, cul-de-sac upon cul-de-sac? Isn’t that an example of developer greed, trying to squeeze every last nickel out of a deal, even at the expense of dismal, unlivable neighborhoods?

Mr. Smith’s colleague, Mr. Jones, chimed in.

“If you take a piece of ground and try to develop it, you start with a pile of bills,” he said. “You have all kinds of fees, and you have to grade the site, and put in utilities, and prepare your development plan, and get it approved, and put in roads, and if it’s a big deal, you’ll have to provide parks, and maybe even build police and fire stations. So that may mean forming a special district and selling bonds to fund some of it — and that’s before you’ve built or sold a single house. The system demands that you maximize the dollars from any development — if you underutilize the land or try anything different, that just adds costs and uncertainty. The business is risky enough even if you do everything right — and that’s just the way it is.”

So why bother? Innovation is punished, not rewarded. Wait until someone else, with deep pockets and high ideals takes the plunge, spends a ton of money and goes broke.

But suppose, I asked of Smith and Jones, that there were no rules or regulations?

Imagine a “charter development.” Like a charter school, such a development would be released from the stifling bureaucratic mandates which inhibit creativity, originality and efficiency. Only reputable and experienced local builders and developers could qualify — but they’d have a free hand.

Smith was both fascinated and aghast.

“You know, it would be so interesting to be able to do things we could never do under the current rules,” he said. “I’d like to build a really green development — for example, drill geothermal wells and supply that energy to all the houses in a development. Big costs up front, big benefits to homeowners and the environment — and you could never do it.”

“It’s fun to think about it,” he said, “but it’ll never happen.”

Jones agreed.

“That’s what we’re good at,” he said. “Understanding the rules, and how to work within them. I don’t know how we’d deal with a no rules development.”

“What,” I asked Smith, “happens to an indoor cat when you put him outside?”

“He gets eaten by a coyote?”

“No,” I said (from experience), “the cat huddles by the door until you let him back in, because he can’t understand the concept of unbounded space.”

Developers, like indoor cats, have lived with bounded space all of their lives. Erasing the boundaries might be terrifying — and it might be exhilarating.

And maybe it’s not as impractical as it seems.

Given our strong libertarian streak, such a proposal might find broad support. It might also attract folks from the “creative class” — young architects, builders, designers and planners who would, in partnership with Smith and Jones, forge new development models for Colorado Springs and the rest of the nation.

Later that evening, I ran into the Seasoned Political Observer at a downtown dive and asked him about Vice Mayor Larry Small’s proposal to increase city property taxes by 600 percent.

“I like Larry,” SPO said. “I guess he’s running for mayor — but this isn’t the way to go about getting votes. What’s next, banning firearms and taxing churches? He’s your buddy, isn’t he? Just tell him to shut up for a while.”

And Mayor Lionel Rivera? Will the ethics thing drive him out of office?

“He’s not going anywhere,” SPO said, “You guys are beating a dead horse. I don’t think he did anything wrong, and if he did, he’s too smart to get caught. Find something else to write about.”

And with that, SPO finished a drink and disappeared into the warm, velvety night.

John Hazlehurst can be reached at John.Hazlehurst@csbj.com or 227-5861.