Most Harris County residents would support zoning or other land-use planning tools to guide growth, protect neighborhoods and curb suburban sprawl, the 2008 Houston Area Survey shows.
Almost two-thirds of those responding to this year’s survey thought more land-use planning would benefit Houston, three-quarters said redeveloping older urban areas was the best way to absorb population growth, and more than half said they would support zoning.
As neighborhood leaders push for stronger protections against development they consider unsuitable, political analysts and potential candidates said the survey results send a message that will resonate powerfully in the 2009 city election campaign.
“There is a clear perception that there needs to be a system to guide growth,” said Stephen Klineberg, the Rice University sociology professor who has directed the annual survey since 1982 and will present this year’s results to the Greater Houston Partnership on Wednesday. “There’s a pretty powerful consensus there.”
It’s uncertain, however, whether these public attitudes will lead to new policies.
Klineberg and others cautioned that the survey gauges support only for general concepts. Details of a zoning ordinance or other planning initiatives might get a different reaction, they said.
Shortly before Houston’s last zoning referendum in 1993, surveys showed a majority favored a zoning ordinance. But the election failed after voters saw maps showing how the new rules might affect their own property, said Kendall Miller, the president of Houstonians for Responsible Growth. The organization, led by real estate professionals, lobbies against additional regulations on development in Houston.
“Giving up control of their own property and handing it over to city government is part of the process of land-use restrictions,” Miller said. “When people understand that, they generally reject it.”
The print edition showed that the approval rate for “zoning” was a bit less than it was for the 1999 survey. This is a little like those “do you plan to vote for a Republican or a Democrat this year” polls. The generic result may look favorable for your side, but once a specific candidate – or in this case, a specific proposal – is in place, there will be specific things to criticize about it, and people who might like the idea in the abstract will see themselves as losing if it passes. This is not to say that another zoning referendum would be doomed to fail, just that having a majority in favor of the concept now means little.
One last thing:
Houston’s business, political and neighborhood leaders have debated growth and development issues for decades. These discussions have intensified in recent years as people flocked back to older neighborhoods inside Loop 610, land values rose and developers started replacing bungalows with townhomes or high-rise buildings.
Again according to the print edition, 76% of respondents said that growth in Harris County is best done by redeveloping older areas, rather than expanding to the outer edges. That’s a fine and responsible thing, and I’d give the same response. But it does bring up the matter of traffic congestion on surface roads again, and it highlights the urgent need to address those issues now while it’s still possible to do so. I’ve got more to say on this shortly, but for now I just want to note the point.