Do the Roads Belong to All of Us?

Posted by David Holtzman on October 20, 2014

The other day at a planning board meeting, I heard someone claim that all the roads from the nearest shopping center to their house, a distance of at least three miles, were "residential roads." That was a new one to me.

What he based that on was the fact that there are many houses along those roads, but no businesses, at least none that are clearly selling something or providing some sort of service. He made this statement as he was encouraging the planning board to reject a proposed business. The business would interfere with his "quiet enjoyment of his property."

Now I have heard people argue plenty of times that a residential neighborhood is the wrong place for a business to operate. Sometimes in these neighborhoods commerce is very restricted, but people are allowed to have so-called "home occupations," like a small cake-baking business, for instance, or a hair salon in someone's converted living room. As long as there is minimal sign of the business from the street or from neighbors' houses, people are usually ok with it.

But I'd never heard someone stake a claim to a road, or a set of roads, as off-limits to business. Especially in this case, where the roads in question were not even part of a defined subdivision of homes and streets. 

A few weeks earlier at another planning board meeting, someone was trying to get approval to have weddings on their property. Some neighbors objected, arguing that the road that led to this place was an "agricultural road." Their main concern was that it was a narrow two-lane road with no shoulder, and farmers drive big tractors that can't pull over when wedding traffic is hurrying to get past them. I'm sympathetic to the farmers, since I like to see rural areas kept safe for farming and not overrun by people who don't see the value of them. But it seemed odd to claim the road as belonging to a particular set of users.

These two situations are emblematic, I think, of how Americans are uncomfortable with mixing uses. No one wants to live anywhere near a place of work, despite the potential for saving greatly on commuting time, not to mention creating more vibrant communities. You have to have your houses over here, your stores over there, your office park somewhere else, and your farm way the heck over there.

I'd like to see a future in which more of us live, work, play and yes, farm in the same neighborhood or district. I don't see why it has to be so hard to imagine. Intelligent people can figure out ways to enable all the different users of a place to coexist.

(Photo credit: Flickr user Doug Kerr Att-SA)

About the author more »

David Holtzman is a former planner for Louisa County, Virginia, a newspaper reporter, and a former Shelterforce editor.

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Charlie Bernstein
21 Oct 14, 10:09 am

David -

I understand your point, and you’re making a reasonable argument. But please think about a point that is not always stated publicly (but is almost always stated privately) in these debates.

More often than not, people’s frustration is not with mixed use. It’s with the frequent reality that mixed used is not evenly (or, many would say, fairly) among communities. The neighborhood facing construction of, say, a new gas station, methadone treatment center, dry cleaning business, big box store, or off-track-betting parlor is usually the same neighborhood where everything else gets located.

One reason is that middle-class and rich communities have a louder political voice. They can say no and win.

Whether the new proposed land use is of benefit to the wider world takes back seat to the question not always voiced at planning board meetings: Why is it always our neighborhood?

It’s a very fair question, and whether it’s stated or not, it’s a fundamental issue of democracy. Or democracy’s failure.

“Protective” zoning is a good idea, but especially in so-called service center communities, it’s used to impose dreck, not prosperity, safety, tranquility, or convenience. If you live in a mixed-use zone, it would be more accurate to call it inflictive zoning.

The arguments that drown out the feeble No! of working class communities are often overwhelming: People need cheap big box stores! People need that new interstate entrance! People need more sub-standard housing!

Or: The strip mall has to go somewhere! The casino has to go somewhere!

Or: People have property rights! It would be cruel to tell the guy who just sank money into a choice corner lot that he can’t build on it. It could also be a litigation invitation, because law favors the lawmakers. As Leon Fullerton sang, “Who writes the rules don’t need to cheat.”

Those arguments all mask the real issue: that the same neighborhoods have to deal with the same issue time after time. If it’s not a new Dunkin’ Donuts, it’s a new jail. If it’s not a new jail, it’s a new condo development.

And what if it’s a new senior center or a soup kitchen. Neighbors who object sound like ogres. But the tune they’re singing is the same one they sang when it was a massage parlor.

Fill in the blank. Whatever is proposed, it’s about fairness. Why is it always us? Because we don’t have the power (or the powers that be think and hope we don’t have the power) to stop it.

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