Bye-bye sidewalks if developers prevail

Betty Bean
Government/Politics columnist

Mayors and planners across the state are lining up to oppose a bill that would require local governments to pay developers for right-of-way acquisition.

“We need to maintain the ability to require developers to dedicate that right of way – their developments contribute to creating the need, and we want them to contribute an equitable share of the costs of making those improvements. This bill would make it very challenging for local governments to finance road improvements,” said Gerald Green, executive director of the local planning commission.

A bill (SB1368/HB0496) sponsored by two Middle Tennessee lawmakers, Sen. Paul Bailey and Rep. Ryan Williams, would require local governments or planning agencies to pay fair market value for the right-of-way acquisition rather than demand it as a condition of rezoning.

“The cost of acquiring easements would tax our financial ability to undertake road improvements, and as a result, many needed projects (including sidewalks) would not get done,” Green said.

“Using taxpayer money to pay developers for right-of-way rights will siphon funds away from much-needed infrastructure projects. And we’re speaking out of both sides of our mouths – saying we don’t have the funds to undertake necessary transportation improvements, so we’re having to consider a gas tax increase at the same time we’re thinking about escalating costs by not requiring dedicating easements.”

Developer Scott Davis is also watching this bill. Not surprisingly, he takes a different view.

“In some cases, we’re forced to give up substantial amounts of right-of-way where there are no plans in place to widen the road or make improvements. Generally, we’re buying land on a per acre basis, and this reduces our usable acreage, taking land from us for ‘possible’ road improvements sometime in a distant future that never happens,” Davis said.

He’s skeptical of the value of sidewalks in subdivisions in outlying areas with no possibility of connecting to amenities, and said that right-of-way acquisition leaves developers with less usable acreage and drives up the selling price of the homes that will be built.

“Remember I’m a greedy developer – if I thought adding sidewalks would increase the value of my lots, I would definitely put in sidewalks. People are not considering development costs. They’ve gone up so high that we are not able to produce affordable housing,” Davis said.

Green has strong backing from Mayor Madeline Rogero, who said (through a spokesperson), “We share the concerns that Gerald Green expressed to you, about shifting the cost of infrastructure to support a development from a private developer to public taxpayers. We oppose the bill for that reason.”

Green said it would be shortsighted to change the law in this matter.

“Our society’s attention span has been limited to the time it takes us to type out 144 characters (on Twitter). We need to take a longer perspective on this.”

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