Urban Over Here, Loss of Rural Freedom Over There

    Photo of downtown Staunton, Virginia, by Dougstone cia Creative Commons

    On the national level, the Tea Party has been viewed by some as a conservative movement concerned with rolling back changes over the past few decades for social and economic justice. On the local level, though, community developers and planners may notice more a particular interest of Tea Party and associated “patriot” groups. This interest has to do with the false idea that planners are trying to change how people in suburban and rural areas live, by forcing them to move into urban, densely developed enclaves, or removing their right to build in rural areas.

    Here in Virginia this idea has upended the comprehensive planning process in several localities, notably recently in Chesterfield County, a suburb of Richmond, where the leadership sent a draft plan back to planners for a re-write after Tea Party types challenged it. In other areas of the state citizens have questioned a state law that requires counties over a certain minimum population to designate areas for “urban development.” The state chapter of the American Planning Association supports a bill in the state legislature this winter that would make these urban development areas optional, rather than mandatory, understanding that every locality is different and a one-size-fits-all solution may not be appropriate.

    However, the planners do not agree with the contention that urban development means a loss of freedom to live a suburban or rural lifestyle. In their minds, identifying certain areas for urban development is a useful way to accommodate fast-paced growth while maintaining the historical rural character of other areas.

    Most counties in Central Virginia see preserving rural character as a central goal for them, along with growing their economic base. Property rights is central, too, but for the most part government here has been willing to limit people’s right to do what they want with their property, in order to achieve communitywide goals. The challenge to urban development areas seems to be to say, no, there should be no limits on people’s right to develop their land. As for the objection to creating urbanized islands in otherwise rural or suburban places, it seems to me this is the most rational way to direct new development. There may be variations to look at, but the fundamental principle is that growth will keep coming and we ought to try to influence where it goes.


    David Holtzman is a planner for Louisa County, Virginia, a freelance writer, and a former Shelterforce editor.


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