Infrastructure Update: Land Use and Water Symposium and Federal Update

Land Use and Water

Adapting to a Drier West: Symposium Looks at Links between Land Use and Water
During the last upswing in the market cycle, water proved to be a deal-killer for development projects in some western communities. Water scarcity—real or imagined—was the basis for political resistance against some projects, while others could not acquire water rights at prices that made sense for the bottom line. There also were examples of projects that nevertheless managed to overcome these barriers by demonstrating that development can indeed be part of the solution to water scarcity.

The ULI Center for Balanced Development in the West launched a new initiative to address these issues at a recent symposium, “Adapting to a Drier West: Water, Growth, and Better Development Practices,” held in December in Las Vegas. Participants reported that developers on the vanguard of water scarcity issues already face rising development costs and entitlement risks that are likely to grow more widespread in the future.

Remarkable innovations in land use and development practices are already underway that can reduce urban water use by 30 to 50 percent and offset these unprecedented challenges. Realizing this potential, however, will require people in many professional disciplines to shift their thinking on the relationship between water infrastructure and land use.

“The value that a developer brings is to understand and act on emerging trends,” remarked Harold Smethills during his symposium presentation. As general manager of Sterling Ranch, a 3,100-acre mixed-use development project in Douglas County, Colorado, Smethills has firsthand experience in overcoming the limitations of water scarcity and is one of the first in his state to incorporate rainwater harvesting systems at a large scale. “There is absolutely no question that making a future for real estate development means that we’ll have to deal with water now.”

The symposium was held in partnership with the American Society of Landscape Architects, Ernst & Young, the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, and the Sustainable Sites Initiative.

Federal Update: Transportation Authorization Delayed, but Initiatives Continue
Congress passed the third extension to the law authorizing the federal surface transportation program, which expired at the end of September. The old law will now remain in effect until the end of February. While it is beginning to look less and less likely that a long-term authorization for a revamped federal surface transportation program will find its way onto the crowded federal agenda for 2010, new initiatives continue to move forward.

Highlighting the importance of transit to urban development and accessing jobs, the Obama administration’s joint DOT-HUD-EPA Livability Initiative announced its first grant programs: the Federal Transit Administration has packaged $280 million in unallocated funds into two grant programs funding urban circulators, including streetcars, and buses. While small, both programs use the administration’s six livability principlesto inform their evaluation criteria. The urban circulators program pays special attention to projects that support development or redevelopment, recognizing the importance of achieving mixed-use developments in high-quality pedestrian environments. Both programs also give priority to projects that involve the private sector, including financial commitments from abutting property owners.

The DOT-HUD-EPA partnership also got a boost in the recently signed appropriations bill that funded $150 million for the Sustainable Communities Initiative’s regional planning and community challenge grant programs. The grants are to be used to link transportation and land use planning and to reduce barriers to affordable, economically vital, and sustainable communities. Details on eligible projects and evaluation criteria are expected in early 2010.

Of interest to those working on development around transit, the FTA is also wrapping up the comment period on a new policy that lengthens the definition of walking distance to transit and recognizes the bicycle/transit connection, which expands the eligibility of pedestrian and bicycle facilities for FTA funding. According to the proposed regulations, “all pedestrian improvements located within one-half mile and all bicycle improvements located within three miles of a public transportation stop or station shall have a de facto physical and functional relationship to public transportation.”

Finally, infrastructure is featured in the “Jobs for Main Street Act, 2010” passed by the House just before the December recess and not yet scheduled for consideration in the Senate. The bill provides an additional $27.5 billion for surface transportation (mostly highways), $8.4 billion for transit, $800 million for Amtrak, $500 million for aviation, and $1 billion of the Clean Water State Revolving Fund.