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Zombie subdivisions and post-bust detritus

Posted by Anthony Flint  February 10, 2011 03:59 PM

Down in Charlotte last week for the New Partners for Smart Growth conference, I was struck by the indications of what might be called Smart Growth 2.0 -- sessions on integrating local food systems and public health benefits (as in, more walking) into real estate listings, redeveloping vacant lots in cities, addressing gentrification, form-based codes and zoning reform. But one topic was particularly daunting -- what to do with thousands of acres of “zombie” subdivisions: approved and platted, some partially built but most just lots, unimproved roads and the occasional lone lamppost. The phenomenon is less known in Massachusetts, but is prevalent in the South and Intermountain West.
Many developers rushed for entitlements in the real estate run-up to 2007, said Jim Holway, executive director of Western Lands and Communities, a joint venture of the Sonoran Institute and the Lincoln Institute, speaking on the panel “Reshaping Development Patterns.” The planned developments are typically in far-flung locations, make it difficult for others to get permitting in better locations, and lock in water allocations. Much of the land wouldn’t be developed for 5 or 10 years under the best of circumstances, let alone amid the plummeting demand.
The zombie subdivisions “are never going to move,” said Kathy Rinaldi, county commissioner for Teton County, Idaho, where nearly 5,000 homes and lots lie fallow in over 36 approved, unbuilt, and incomplete subdivisions across thousands of acres of environmentally valuable land. Some developers are changing their schemes to create more density and open space, but others, including a development around a golf course where the topsoil has been scraped for fairways, simply hope and wait for the market to come back.
Zombie subdivisions.bmp
Aside from the contentious idea of replatting or rezoning already approved land, one option, given that prices are so low, is for local or state government and possibly non-profit partners to go in and purchase the land, especially if it has high wildlife or natural resource value, said Holway. Senior fellow Armando Carbonell, who moderated the panel, suggested there might be a way to seize the moment and rethink the location of these developments, or possibly redesign them.
The incentive for developers for engaging in such a “reset” would be to recognize the changing market for housing that is steadily turning away from the purchase of single-family homes, said Arthur C. “Chris” Nelson, professor at the University of Utah. In the coming years, households with children will drop, and the market will be dominated by aging baby boomers -- but millions of them will be trying to sell their own homes, creating oversupply, and more interested in multifamily and renting. “We’re overbuilt by about 28 million homes on large lots considering demand by 2020,” Nelson said.
The bottom line, said Holway, who is leading research on what is also known as obsolete or premature subdivisions: “It’s not just a crash. It’s going to be different when (the market) comes back.” It's worth thinking about accordingly in places like Worcester County or Southeastern Massachusetts, and as the state Legislature once again takes up the Comprehensive Land Use Reform and Partnership Act.

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About the author

Anthony Flint is a fellow at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, a think tank in Cambridge, Mass. and author of Wrestling with Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took on More »

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