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Thread: Why are suburban lots in the southwest so small?

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    Cyburbian
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    Why are suburban lots in the southwest so small?

    I don't want to debate the benefits or pitfalls of each of these designs but rather just ask why.

    Why are the suburban lots in the Midwest and East Coast so large with park-like yards and the lots in the Southwest and California so small? When I look at aerial images of new neighborhoods it's clear to see that most new (average-priced) developments in the SW rarely have large yards but the ones in places like Indiana and Minnesota will have huge lots compared to the size of the house. Why the difference, assuming there is an equal amount of "available land" in both areas of the country?

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    Cyburbian Raf's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by stroskey View post
    I don't want to debate the benefits or pitfalls of each of these designs but rather just ask why.

    Why are the suburban lots in the Midwest and East Coast so large with park-like yards and the lots in the Southwest and California so small? When I look at aerial images of new neighborhoods it's clear to see that most new (average-priced) developments in the SW rarely have large yards but the ones in places like Indiana and Minnesota will have huge lots compared to the size of the house. Why the difference, assuming there is an equal amount of "available land" in both areas of the country?
    Cost of land is a big one here in California. The more land costs, the more units a developer needs to pack in in order to see profit on development, especially if it is a typical single family housing neighborhood. On top of land, fees, cost of development, etc is higher here as well (meez thinks). So when you buy 20 acres of land, as a developer, there is a certain threshold of profit i need to make back, hence the smaller lots.
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    Cyburbian boiker's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by CPSURaf View post
    Cost of land is a big one here in California. The more land costs, the more units a developer needs to pack in in order to see profit on development, especially if it is a typical single family housing neighborhood. On top of land, fees, cost of development, etc is higher here as well (meez thinks). So when you buy 20 acres of land, as a developer, there is a certain threshold of profit i need to make back, hence the smaller lots.
    My thought in the desert areas is that the development pattern is part due to the tendancy of developers to build the way they are accustumed to-- i.e. the california methods; part due to the dramatically higher impact fees in "family/middle class" cities in AZ; and partly due to the fact that you really can't do much with a big desert yard except keep the weeds down or irrigate entirely too much. In the midwest, impact fees seemed lower and personal big backyards are a practical selling point.

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    Cyburbian mgk920's avatar
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    I agree, cost of land is the biggie. Buildable land is in critically short supply in California and other southwestern USA states.

    Also, in many places in USA, such 'big lot' sprawly style suburban development is required by law (see: local zoning and development codes).

    One interesting exception is the Canadian province of Ontario. From what I understand, provincial law prohibits municipalities from regulating unit density in their residential zones, so you see single-family developments that are even more 'packed in there' there than you do in California (check high-resolution Google-Earth aerial images of some Ontario cities to see them). OTOH, there is little of the 'big lot' style of sprawling development there that you see here in much the USA and their developing areas are far more compact and defined with much sharper urban/rural divides than here.

    Mike

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    Robert Lang wrote a paper on this in Housing Policy Debate.

    http://www.mi.vt.edu/Research/PDFs/shpd_1304_Lang.pdf

    His thesis is that the scarcity of water was a major factor and the expense of piping in water necessitates small lots.

    Having grown up in California and then moving east, I would phrase the question in a reverse manner. Why are eastern, midwestern and southern lots so big?

  6. #6
    Cyburbian
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    Cost of Land

    An acre of land with a house in Ohio costs about $300,000. An acre of land in Southern California with a house costs about $3,000,000. That's basically the difference.

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    Cyburbian
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    Quote Originally posted by smccutchan1 View post
    An acre of land with a house in Ohio costs about $300,000. An acre of land in Southern California with a house costs about $3,000,000. That's basically the difference.
    Surly an acre of land in Columbus by the university is more expensive than an acre of land in the desert far away from the ocean or LA or San Diego. I don't think you can compare the two on face value.

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    Cyburbia Administrator Dan's avatar
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    It's not just California, though, but also Colorado, Arzona, New Mexico, Nevada, and much of Texas. long before the price of land skyrocketed.

    I've thought about this before, and came up with the following.

    * In the Southwest, large tracts were generally held in continuous ownership, with few divisions. Rural roads followed section lines every mile, and provided little opportunity for profitable frontage subdivision. When land came available for development, usually it was in very large tracts, which are easy to divide. In the Northeast, tracts of land are much smaller; there's no large land holdings. Rural roads are spaced more frequently, there's plentiful groundwater, and thus frontage subdivision is more feasible. The result: a chopped-up pattern of land ownership that makes resubdivsion for residential development difficult. There will be narrow but deep frontage lots lining arterial and collector roads, and oddly shaped 10 to 20 acre patches of land in the interior, where it's often difficult to get multiple tiers of blocks.

    * Development in the Southwest tends to be of a much larger scale, with roll-your-own-zoning PUDs often encompassing thousands of lots, compared to tens of lots for the split farm and gentleman's estate parcels in the Northeast described above, which usually have more traditional zoning designations; they're too small for PUDs. Also, there's more large national residential developers and builders in the Southwest with the capital to build very large communities, while in the Northeast there's more mom-and-pop builders.

    * Development in the Southwest is driven more by retirees and senior citizens than in other parts of the country. Retirees don't want large lots to maintain.

    * Southwest states have low property tax rates, so zoning codes long ago considered the expense of maintaining the extra infrastructure for water lines, roads, and so on needed for large-lot development. Small-lot development is cheaper for a city than large-lot development.

    * What are you going to do with a patch of desert, anyhow? When I worked in Las Cruces, it seemed like most residential lots came in two flavors: really small, and quite large ranchettes and acreage lots. Lot sizes got either far smaller or much, much larger the further away one was removed from the Rio Grande, where the water table was low and deciduous trees and eastern-style grass lawns are easy to grow. There was no middle ground for lot sizes on the mesas; it was either 5,000 to 7,000 square feet (and, in many cases, much less) or 100,000 square feet and up.

    * Many communities have unofficial growth boundaries imposed by federally-owned and/or Indian reservation land that surround the city. Federal land in the Northeast is usually limited to small national parks, historic sites, and government facilities; there's no large tracts of BLM land or massive pueblos.

    * In the Northeast, incorporated communities are usually physically much smaller and more constrained than the megaburbs of the Southwest. Opportunities to create a diverse tax base to ensure local fiscal stability are more limited. A community with too much small-lot residential simply can't annex more land for commercial or industrial development to provide a balance; once it's built out, that's it, end of story. Thus, northeastern communities zone for large-lot development, to promote the construction of larger homes that will provide enough property tax revenue to fund services without having to depend on a commercial or industrial tax base.

    * Northeastern communities are more established and have a far less transitory population than Southwest communities. This creates an environment that is ripe for NIMBYs who are opposed to large lot development; "My family has been here for six generations, and ..." In the Southwest, there's a much higher population of non-natives, many of which are already living in houses on small lots, ano are less likely to object to small-lot development.

    * Racial tensions also tend to run high in the Northeast, where city neigborhods were traditionally divided along ethnic lines. There's the perception that small lots will attract poor residents and be magnets for crime. In other words, they're afraid blacks will move there. In the Southwest, where the built environment developed largely after the era of massive immigration and social forces that created such segregation, neighborhoods tend to be more racially integrated, and there isn't the fear that a small-lot development will be the seeds of an all-minority suburban slum.
    Growth for growth's sake is the ideology of the cancer cell. -- Edward Abbey

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    Cyburbian dvdneal's avatar
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    I think for Arizona, it's a product of the California development pattern. Like the thread says, land costs big money in Cali so get as many houses as you can on the property. Most developers in Arizona are using the California model, mostly because we let them.

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    Cyburbian Michele Zone's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Gotta Speakup View post
    Robert Lang wrote a paper on this in Housing Policy Debate.

    http://www.mi.vt.edu/Research/PDFs/shpd_1304_Lang.pdf

    His thesis is that the scarcity of water was a major factor and the expense of piping in water necessitates small lots.
    That's what I was thinking. I recall reading something about how LA developed in a real spread out fashion before there were cars because of the need to develop very large tracts of land in order to make it cost effective to deal with the utilities. You pipe in water from hundreds of miles away. It doesn't work to add a few units. Go big, or go home, so to speak.

    Having lived on both East and West Coasts, I also have to wonder what factor "imported culture" (for lack of a better word) plays in this. There are a lot more Asians on the West Coast and more Europeans on the East Coast -- both new immigrants and folks whose parents or grandparents immigrated. When I first got to the West Coast, I was surprised by the high number of Asians, something I saw relatively little of growing up. In Columbus Georgia, there is a Korean-American subculture/community because of Fort Benning: Soldiers get stationed in Korea and sometimes bring home Korean wives. But the big divide was black and white. There were very few Hispanic, Asian, etc. folks around where I grew up. I got to the West Coast and suddenly understood why you have "Little China" in several cities, like San Francisco.

    Anyway, my point is just that oriental cultures tend to have quite small homes compared to Europe. I wonder if that has any influence at all on West Coast vs East Coast culture, thought patterns, and decision-making processes.

    Just a stray thought.

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    Cyburbian
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    Quote Originally posted by mgk920 View post
    I agree, cost of land is the biggie. Buildable land is in critically short supply in California and other southwestern USA states.

    Also, in many places in USA, such 'big lot' sprawly style suburban development is required by law (see: local zoning and development codes).

    One interesting exception is the Canadian province of Ontario. From what I understand, provincial law prohibits municipalities from regulating unit density in their residential zones, so you see single-family developments that are even more 'packed in there' there than you do in California (check high-resolution Google-Earth aerial images of some Ontario cities to see them). OTOH, there is little of the 'big lot' style of sprawling development there that you see here in much the USA and their developing areas are far more compact and defined with much sharper urban/rural divides than here.

    Mike
    During recent planning law reform, the rules were clarified that municipalities' power to regulate the density of development included power to regulate minimum and maximum densities and height.

    For example, in Ottawa our new Official Plan is proposing a minimum density for new suburban single family homes of 25 units per hectare (about 10 units per acre) and an overall minimum greenfield community density of 34 units per hectare (just under 14 units per acre).

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    Cyburbian Emeritus Chet's avatar
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    I *mostly* agree. but outside of metro areas, land down south is CHEAP. I just got 4 people telling me where to buy land at $700 an acre, but you must buy in 40's. Still, cheaper than an acre back home...

  13. #13
    Lots have always been small in California. Go to areas built in the 1940s and the lots are small. Is that the case in the East, Midwest and South? Overtime, as land became more expensive, the lots in California seem to have grown smaller so that areas built since 2000 have even smaller lots than the first post war suburbs. That would reflect the rise in housing costs.

    In San Jose, there are neighborhoods built right after WWII where the lots are in excess of 6000 square feet. But while the city continues to build about 10000 housing units a year, the number of new single family homes is approaching less than 10%.

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    Cyburbian rcgplanner's avatar
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    I think it also comes down to the lack of natural boundaries, especially in the Midwest. With little in the way of topographical features, development can sprawl and sprawl. Outside of the center city there is little incentive for density. Land is cheap, resources plentiful, the road system is set up in a nice neat grid shape. The grid helps funnel people to a from the suburbs.

    East of the Appalachian Mountains, the land is on a metes and bounds system, which tends to make subdividing land not as clean. Also as others have said, the northeast tends to have more long-term landowners which have held the same piece of land for 50 plus years. The amount of plentiful resources in the northeast also leads to larger lots.

    In the southwest, what is someone going to do with a large arid lot? You can xeriscape, but that doesn't require a large lot.

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    Cyburbian
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    People keep saying "why do you need a big arid lot"? Let's ask that another way as well... why do you need a big lawn? Most people here have a small garden, a storage shed, and then a tree or two. Other than that, the large grass area only is for watering, fertilizing, and mowing - those are just added expenses. If you have kids it's nice for them to run around in but that same argument could also be used in the southwest.

    Edit - I think they look nice but I also think there is beauty in the SW flora. I wouldn't mind some sprawling acreage down there :o)

  16. #16
    Cyburbian boiker's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by stroskey View post
    People keep saying "why do you need a big arid lot"? Let's ask that another way as well... why do you need a big lawn? Most people here have a small garden, a storage shed, and then a tree or two. Other than that, the large grass area only is for watering, fertilizing, and mowing - those are just added expenses. If you have kids it's nice for them to run around in but that same argument could also be used in the southwest.

    Edit - I think they look nice but I also think there is beauty in the SW flora. I wouldn't mind some sprawling acreage down there :o)
    As luck would have it, you do have large sprawling 1+ acre lots in foothills and plains in the PHX metro.

    The municpal tax rates are so low here that cost of providing services clearly outweigh tax revenues. To make up for it, steep impact fees try to caputre these costs and privatize the expense of improvements as much as possible. This, I believe, has made smaller lot development more enticing because a lower per-lot impact fee will result as the impact fee for the 40-acre development are spread over many more properties.

    Also, the 1-mile grid is as equally prevalent in the midwest and yet small lot exurban/suburban does not happen. I believe this to be regional developer behavior based on what they think will sell best in a region and a reaction to the generally much lower impact fees and much higher taxes. In a sense, much of the infrastructure costs are made public through high property taxes which allows a developer to consider larger lot development.

    It seems that another role at play is the relationship between county and city development. Those large 40-160 acre swaths are just as likely to be developed in the county as they are in cities in the midwest. In fact, there are often dramatically differing development standards between the two. The county might allow a subdivision with lightly improved streets, all spetic, with lax building/zoning/design regulations which obliterates many opportunties for "smart growth" type regulations from cities. Also, Illinois annexation policy for instance, is a disaster that circumvents the zoning process through annexation agreements which prescribe nearly every little detail of the project and 9 times out of 10 to the developers favor and sometimes closely or identically aligned to the lax county regulations.

    Maricopa County and the communities seem to have a better relationship than those in the midwest where it is more adversarial than cooperative (even if just by a little).

    These are my inferences and experience, your's may vary.

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    Cyburbia Administrator Dan's avatar
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    From what I understand, the reason for some southwestern metros having either very small lots or very large lots, with very little middle ground, is the availability of sewer service. Low percolation rates and lack of moisture result in the need for large leach fields.

    In El Pueblo del Jardín de Las Cruces, the large lots tended to be left in their natural state, with very little landscaping/xeriscaping. Basically, they consisted of 5,000 square foot houses plopped down in the middle of the lot, a driveway carved through the brush, and that was it.

    When I was in Cruces, there were no impact fees, and building permit costs were quite low. Lot sizes were still generally small.
    Growth for growth's sake is the ideology of the cancer cell. -- Edward Abbey

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    Cyburbian
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    We don't have impact fees at all. The developer is required to build the road, sewers, etc. but that's it. Our property taxes are high enough to ensure that the property will pay for the increased fire/police protection.

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    Cyburbian dvdneal's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by rcgplanner View post

    In the southwest, what is someone going to do with a large arid lot? You can xeriscape, but that doesn't require a large lot.
    The problem with these large lots and landscaping is that they grade the lot so no native vegetation is left. We don't want you to have large grass lawns, we don't have the water for that. Once the lot is barren, people just put some rocks down and a couple of plants - nowhere near as useful or attractive as a grass lawn. If people would leave the native plants, it actually turns out quite nice.

    Many times people in the Phoenix area don't need the larger lot, because they just slap a pool and a large patio and don't leave much room for anything else.

    This also goes into cultural imigration. It's not so much that we have asians or mexicans, or anyone else. For Arizona the problem is that people are brining a culture from the Mid-west or California. They want prarie style houses with no basement (no tornados so we don't need 'em) and then they plant all kinds of things that need gallons of water because they think desert plants are ugly (just a personal pet peeve)

  20. #20
    Cyburbian Raf's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by stroskey View post
    Our property taxes are high enough to ensure that the property will pay for the increased fire/police protection.
    California has a law on the books known as proposition 13 passed back in 77 or 78. This law has drastically limited the amount of property tax that can be taken in (1 to 2 percent of a property's value) and does not change until the sale or resale of a home takes place. This has greatly affect cities/counties abilities to bring in income and provide for such things as fire/police, city services, etc. That's why impact fees, mello-roos bonds, zones of benefits are found all over this state for new development. Tough to bring in sewer/water/sd on a 8,000 sf lot subdivision on 20 acres of land, just doesn't pencil out, but easier when we are talking 4-5,000 sf lot.
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    Cyburbian hilldweller's avatar
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    It's pretty much the same way in Florida. A lot of the pre-platted subdivisions (which eventually became cities) had rigid quarter-acre/ 10,000 s.f. lot sizes. The latest generation of subdivisions (pre- housing bust) have much smaller lots. I think there are a lot of factors, some of which have already been mentioned such as land and infrastructure costs and higher impact fees. Also, Florida's water management districts have substantial drainage requirements so a lot of projects end up being clustered around drainage ponds resulting in a higher net lot density.

    There is also the Broward/Palm Beach Co. model where you had gated, higher-density projects with more amenities to be taken over by the HOA. I think a lot of buyers were willing to settle for a smaller lot because there were more concerned with the floor plan and interior amenities, and no doubt the reputation of the builder. (I speak in the past tense about this because no one in their right mind is building these projects in FL now)

    As far as the northeast in comparison, I think topography is a big difference. It's easy to clear and grub FL uplands or AZ desert but in the northeast a lot of subdivisions require significant grading which is often unfeasible (or unacceptable to the local govt). But overall I agree that there is more of a preference for larger lots and the New England town ideal in community planning. Some of the more affluent commuities in the northeast go bananas over density. Try and build a modest density s.f project in the Boston suburbs and you'll pretty much be run out of town on a rail.

  22. #22
    Cyburbian
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    Lot sizes in Denver's older neighborhoods are tiny, when compared to similar pre-war neighborhoods in the east coast/midwest cities.

    I was given two reasons: 1) water, and 2) the neighborhoods were built on what was originally windswept plains, and tiny lots with houses close to one another formed an artificial windbreak, which made the neighborhood more comfortable.

  23. #23
    Cyburbian
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    Quote Originally posted by dvdneal View post
    The problem with these large lots and landscaping is that they grade the lot so no native vegetation is left. We don't want you to have large grass lawns, we don't have the water for that. Once the lot is barren, people just put some rocks down and a couple of plants - nowhere near as useful or attractive as a grass lawn. If people would leave the native plants, it actually turns out quite nice.

    Many times people in the Phoenix area don't need the larger lot, because they just slap a pool and a large patio and don't leave much room for anything else.

    This also goes into cultural imigration. It's not so much that we have asians or mexicans, or anyone else. For Arizona the problem is that people are brining a culture from the Mid-west or California. They want prarie style houses with no basement (no tornados so we don't need 'em) and then they plant all kinds of things that need gallons of water because they think desert plants are ugly (just a personal pet peeve)
    This is what slays me. I have continuous go-rounds with code enforcement and our self-appointed "green expert" (see the irritants at work thread...) over landscaping requirements. Why do we require landscaping that requires a drip system? Why not allow for xeriscaping?

    As for the small lot size, the single biggest factor is the low incidence of privately held land. Out here, the State Land Trust owns (or owned at one time) every other section of land. Combine that with National Parks, state parks, and just plain undevelopable mountains, and the acreage that is actually developable drops significantly. I think the percentage of privately owned land in AZ is something like 17%. That drives up the price of available land, so as many have already said, developers need to pack more houses on limited acreage to make money. That is if you can get water....we just backed out of a deal to buy a place here because the well produced a whopping six gallons...an hour!

  24. #24
    Cyburbia Administrator Dan's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by PennPlanner View post
    Lot sizes in Denver's older neighborhoods are tiny, when compared to similar pre-war neighborhoods in the east coast/midwest cities.
    I hate "the exception is the norm" posts, but a comparison:

    Denver (Berkeley neighborhood/Northwest Denver, 2.5 miles from downtown Denver)
    • First house I ever owned
    • Brick Craftsman bungalow, built in 1925
    • 850'2 living area (excluding basement)
    • 40' wide x120' deep lot: 5000'2

    Buffalo (Kensington neighborhood/East Side, 6 miles from downtown Buffalo)
    • Childhood home
    • Buffalo-style semi-bungalow, built in 1922
    • 1600'2 living area (800'2 first floor, 800'2 unfinished attic)
    • 30' wide x 110' deep lot: 3,300'2 (Originally platted in the late 1800s with 40' wide lots; replatted before development with 30' lots)

    Buffalo is notorious for a pre-WWII subdivision pattern with very long blocks (in some cases ore than a half mile long) and very small lots that are quite narrow but relatively deep. A 40' lot in Buffalo is considered very wide. Alleys? Almost nonexistent.

    City lots in Buffalo are generally much smaller than those in Rochester, Cleveland and Detroit. Buffalo had plenty of water, too; when I was growing up city water was unmetered.

    While Buffalo was a boomtown before WWII, real estate was never expensive. It wasn't the San Francisco of its day when it came to home prices.

    Anyone have any theories about why lots in Buffalo are so small compared to other Great Lakes cities? (Excepting Chicago, I know)
    Growth for growth's sake is the ideology of the cancer cell. -- Edward Abbey

  25. #25
    Cyburbian jmello's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Dan View post
    * ...Thus, northeastern communities zone for large-lot development, to promote the construction of larger homes that will provide enough property tax revenue to fund services without having to depend on a commercial or industrial tax base.

    * Northeastern communities are more established and have a far less transitory population than Southwest communities. This creates an environment that is ripe for NIMBYs who are opposed to large lot development; "My family has been here for six generations, and ..." In the Southwest, there's a much higher population of non-natives, many of which are already living in houses on small lots, ano are less likely to object to small-lot development.

    * Racial tensions also tend to run high in the Northeast, where city neigborhods were traditionally divided along ethnic lines. There's the perception that small lots will attract poor residents and be magnets for crime.
    This is exactly what I was going to say Dan. This applies especially to New England, particularly the cities and suburbs of Boston and Providence. Massachusetts had to go as far as to create and anti-snob zoning law called Chapter 40B to limit the power of wealthly suburban towns to exclude multi-family housing and/or small lot single-family housing. Snob zoning is quite a disgrace IMO. It is also one of the main reasons I did not want to work as a municipal planner in Mass.

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