Any mayor’s top task: Weigh in on land use

By Morton Marcus

What is the most important job of a mayor? Clearing the streets of snow? Garbage collection? Pot hole filling? Providing jobs? Enforcing the law and local codes?

Certainly all of these are important tasks. Yet No. 1 on my list is land use. How we use the land in our communities is the basis for the future.

I stopped in for a chat with Bloomington Mayor John Hamilton soon after he was elected. I told him, in my opinion, the most important task he faced was the future use of the downtown block where the post office once stood.

This property, owned by a nearby church, is one diagonal block from the courthouse.

No doubt there are many ideas of how this property should be used. Some would argue for a park. Others would endorse senior citizen housing. Some people envision a monumental, mixed use tower.

Perhaps, this being Bloomington, a few dream of a gathering place for political rallies and evangelical tent meetings, with a dramatic fountain symbolically representing the free flow of ideas.

I have no favorite in this conflict of concepts. Yet what happens to that significant piece of land could shape the future of downtown Bloomington for generations.

But the land is in private hands and can be sold to another private party who will be constrained only by Bloomington zoning and, perhaps, virulent public opinion.

In this country, many insist land owners should not be limited by the concerns of others. No matter what proposal comes forth, there will be opposition. This is where a mayor must step forward on principle, unfettered by public opinion or the blandishments of private interests.

Yet I have in front of me a Feb. 16 email from a “Neighborhood Advocate” in the Indianapolis mayor’s office that states, “the Mayor’s Office doesn’t intervene in land use cases.”

If true, this is an appalling abrogation of responsibility, a clear dereliction of duty. Yes, throughout Indiana we have local committees and commissions to set and maintain land use standards.

Frequently they are composed of distinguished persons well-qualified to judge individual cases. But every mayor must be prepared to protect the future from the visionless sluggards who too often occupy the seats of these regulatory bodies.

Land is the only permanent aspect of our communities. People, at best, last for decades. Structures can survive for generations. How we use the land has an overriding influence on the social, economic and environmental lives of all those who follow us.

Over the centuries, roads, streets and rails were set down that facilitate and limit our activities today. Existing buildings of all sizes and ages will shape the lives of our great-grandchildren. How can any mayor exclude him/herself or be constrained by custom from being part of the decision making in critical land use cases?

Morton Marcus is an economist, formerly with the Indiana University Kelley School of Business. Send comments to dr-editorial@greenfieldreporter.com.