Father Knows Best...? (Or, I Like Puns!)

My father sends me a link to an editorial he wrote for today's local newspaper. An excerpt:

Greenville County -- rich in natural beauty and a quality of life unsurpassed anywhere. Not surprisingly, Greenville has seen growth that most of us could not have imagined.

With that growth, however, come [sic] new pressures: flooding, erosion, sedimentation control, water and air quality and how to protect property owners who are next to new development -- the ones where every living thing is destroyed on site.

Downstream property owners may find their property flooded and their creeks, streams and ponds filled with sediment. In many cases, after development is complete there are new homes, malls, acres of asphalt and a landscape that barely resembles anything natural...

So, what do we do? In large measure because of the pleas from people in parts of the county reeling from explosive growth, Greenville County Council formed the Tree Policy Advisory Committee...I chaired the committee and we worked for more than two years...after reasoned debate we all agreed on one thing -- Greenville County needs a Tree Conservation Ordinance.

My first impression upon reading my father's editorial is that his writing style is perhaps better suited to the legal briefs he's written for thirty years rather than the sort of impassioned eco-plea that's contained in the article. I physically cringed upon reading his closing sentence, which states that the ordinance would be good for "GREENville County."

I've debated my dad before about the merits of this ordinance, and I think the arguments for it are as bare as a deciduous tree in wintertime. I fully support regulations that would penalize developers for any negative externalities that emerge from their development (e.g. pollution, flooding, congestion), but I do not support land-use regulations imposed purely for the aesthetic sensibilities of entrenched residents who bear none of the cost that such regulations bring. The tree ordinance--though my father would like you to believe otherwise--is such a regulation.

There's a reason developers build neighborhoods the way they do: it's cheaper, and for some strange reason, people seem to like being able to afford decent-quality housing despite the fact it's on a "lifeless" quarter-acre plot that my father finds so abhorrent. Imposing any costly regulation will cause a reduction in supply at the margin and raise the prices of homes; this is justifiable in some circumstances, but this particular ordinance would function as a tax on future homeowners to subsidize the prejudices of existing residents (Arthur Pigou would roll over in his grave at the perversity!).

Dad, while admitting that the ordinance would cause homes to become less affordable, hastens to claim that the cost of conserving the trees is offset by the increased market value of the property. If this were true, then why aren't developers already doing it? If it didn't cost anything for developers to leave the trees intact, then they are actually wasting money by cutting the trees down--this implies a level of incompetence that should have developers bristling!

Point is, markets do a remarkable job of taking into account non-territorial preferences, something which local political action simply cannot. If one believes the market is failing to account for certain externalities, then one should adopt measures that get to the heart (root?) of the problem in a way that brings about the most benefit for the least cost. One should not, however, impose a regulation based on preference and THEN attempt to rationalize its existence with decidedly hazy arguments about problems it might help to solve.

I'm afraid that, in the case of this ordinance, my father can't see the forest for the trees.