Tuesday, May 02, 2006

The Hills Are Alive with the Sound of Zoning Exceptions

I want to write for a little bit about the recent change by City Planning to revise the existing hillside zoning designation.

But first, I want to recognize that I'm really late on this topic... like a year late. I hadn't given it much thought until recently, when I saw a proposed zoning map for a neighborhood of which I am familiar. The proposed zoning had effectively reduced the developable land in the neighborhood by, I would estimate, about 25%. It was a lot.

Not to say this change would be a bad thing; the Map Pittsburgh program is trying to both reassert the traditional character of the various neighborhood and to establish the de facto zoning of the neighborhoods as the de jure zonings. Basically, the areas that they have designated as "Hillside" were never built upon anyway, so this is no great loss. Basically, the new designations would enshrine what was already in place.

If you suffer from insomnia sometime, you may want to read through the zoning code, and learn just how large the interior sideyard setback has to be for a single family dwelling in an R1A-H zone*. While you're there, you can also read about the Hillside District. It's... thrilling.

I will sum it up for you in four words: you can't build anything.

OK, maybe that's too simple... the more complicated answer is that a person's ability to develop in a Hillside District is extremely limited and is only permitted by special exceptions to the rules. You can build a house in this zone, but you need to jump through a ridiculous number of bureaucratic hoops to the point that you wish that you'd never brought up the idea in the first place. It is a cost and time intensive process... which was, of course, the point.

This got me thinking about a few things:

(1) The change in the zoning classifications from non-Hillside to Hillside in the various neighborhoods effectively reduces the developable sites within the City of Pittsburgh. About 10% of the City is "Hillside", ergo, only 90% of the City can be built upon even before you start to factor in floodplains, brownfields, parks, cemeteries, etc. There is intrinsic value lost to the City in terms of potential development revenue.

(2) While the Supreme Court has upheld the right of Cities to enforce zoning (cf. Euclid v. Ambler, 272 U.S. 365 [1926]), this change does affect the value of these properties individually. For example, under the old zoning, I could, conceivably, tear down an existing house and build a larger house; under the Hillside designation, however, I can no longer build anything new. The value of the land has been stripped away.

(3) Still, the value to the community to leaving this land vacant may be a powerful incentive. I'm not referring to the "beauty of Pittsburgh's vistas," "maintaining a green backdrop," or any crap like that, but instead the real (and economically costly) factors of drainage and soil erosion. The costs of these negative externalities are not necessarily borne by the property owners, but rather those that are down stream or down the hill. It could be socially beneficial to prohibit the potential destruction of private property by restricting the use of other property.

(4) Back to pont #1: Allegheny County and surrounding municipalities are not so constrained by the City's reluctance to build on hillsides. They can build all they want, increasing their building stock and attracting people and businesses from the City... at least in theory.

(5) OK, there is some value in the "beauty of Pittsburgh's vistas," "maintaining a green backdrop," and any crap like that... I'm just not a very sentimental guy. I'm sure we can figure out a way to measure that value.

The point is this: the designation of all these areas as "Hillside" will restrict the City of Pittsburgh to its own benefit and to its own detriment. The question is whether the loss of developable area and economic growth is less than or equal to the value retained through preventing erosion and maintaining picturesque-ness.

And I think I made that last word up.

*The Answer is Five Feet

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