10/15/2014 07:02 pm ET Updated Dec 15, 2014

Useful Land Use

The nation needs every tool at its disposal to combat the unrelenting increase in human generated greenhouse gas emissions, the primary catalyst for global warming. That is why the time for reconsidering the institution of national land use planning is at hand.

Federally mandated national land use planning could curb energy-profligate urban sprawl by preserving open space, encouraging high density clustered development, and promoting mass transit. That would bolster efforts to slow global warming. How? By reducing reliance on automobiles and the carbon emissions they emit, preserving atmospheric greenhouse gas absorbent green (vegetated) areas, and decreasing energy consumption in general. As a bonus, institutionalized national planning guidelines could be drawn to halt prime farmland loss. Urban blight could be diminished by providing for affordable housing and steering industry to locate in environmentally sustainable locations.

The late Democratic Senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson of Washington State tried to get such a policy enacted in the early 1970s. Although his proposed legislation passed the U.S. Senate twice by comfortable margins, conservative Republicans in the House were able to defeat it. In doing so, they used the same arguments that we would undoubtedly hear today from their congressional successors.

At the top of the list would be the objection that the federal government dictating state and local land use planning was an abrogation of private property rights and individual freedom. Complaints of federal zoning, loss of local control, and a launch pad to socialism would assuredly follow. Strict constructionists would argue that since the U.S. Constitution does not specifically empower the federal government to engage in land use planning, the authority should be solely vested in the states and local communities. Moreover, federal bureaucrats in Washington are far too removed from the local scene to make intelligent land use decisions.

Jackson anticipated his opponents' arguments. He emphasized that a federal land use planning agency would collaborate with state and local authorities in awarding grants for adhering to national guidelines that set broad utilitarian goals. It would not be a unilateral Washington-based bureaucratic operation.

To receive federal money, state and local planning agencies would have to function within the parameters of the national guidelines. How states and localities chose to meet those guidelines would be left up to them, assuring maximum flexibility.

It was also pointed out that federal land use planning already existed to an extent through government programs requiring certain locational pre-conditions. Among programs falling into this category were those providing subsidies for highway construction, crop supports, and sewer and sanitation projects. The problem is that implementation of these programs lacks coordination and thus sometimes works at cross purposes.

None of Jackson's arguments carried the day back in the 70s. In the end, all the Senator got for his efforts was a historic footnote demonstrating he was a man ahead of his time.

Hopefully, some member of Congress will pick up where Jackson left off and have better luck, because time is running out.