LAS VEGAS -- Buy land, Will Rogers once said. They ain't making any more of it.
Well, as it turns out, they aren't keeping track of it, either, says Charles Ruma, president of the National Center for Housing and the Environment.
"So many times local officials don't understand the land inventory that exists in their own communities when they start the process of limiting growth," says Ruma.
But local government can keep tabs on the ground within their boundaries, according to a new NCHE report released at the National Association of Home Builders convention in Las Vegas last week. And they should.
"Engaging in land market monitoring provides communities across the nation with a tool that can make Smart Growth smarter," the report says.
The report outlines the framework and advantages of having current and on-going data on the amount of developable land remaining in a community.
"There is nothing smart about policies not based on the best and most current information about land consumption, the demand for housing and urban development, and the relative value of land in alternative uses," said the report's author, Gerrit Knapp, executive director of the National Center for Smart Growth Research and Education at the University of Maryland.
The paper was sponsored by NCHE, which was created by the NAHB in an effort to bring the diverse group of stakeholders together to solve the challenges that face growing communities nationwide.
Though it was started by the NAHB, and Ruma is a former NAHB president, the group claims to be an independent non-profit that performs research and education on environmental issues that interest with housing.
"It became apparent to us that we needed to become more proactive with the environmental community," the Columbus, Ohio, builder told reporters at the convention.
"There was a wall between us that we couldn't bridge, so we decided that the solution was to work toward compromise based on research, not the fiction each side accuses the other side of."
The study calls monitoring land supply "an essential tool for Smart Growth."
Says Knapp: "We're not an advocacy group. We're not for or against smart growth. We just want to make smart growth really smart."
Most communities which try to engage in growth management find the process to be a two-edged sword," the University of Maryland professor of urban studies and planning said at a press briefing.
If too much land is open to development, it creates sprawl, he explained. But if limits are too stringent, demand can quickly exceed supply and drive prices up sharply, resulting in a paucity of affordable housing. "The trick," the professor said, "is to get it just right."
The paper makes the case for not just measuring the availability of land but keeping tabs on what's available on a regular basis.
"You cannot manage what you don't measure," Knapp said. "But a one-time snapshot will quickly become obsolete. Therefore, it is important to measure continually. Land is like any other scarce resource, so the problem is one of inventory management."
The report lays out the steps necessary for communities to establish a land monitoring system, a process that should be made easier and less expensive as more and more jurisdictions adopt Geographic Information Systems (GIS) technology.
Compiling and using information that many communities already collect, such as environmental constraints, zoning, serviced land and public land, GIS-based systems allow planners to prepare for future growth with respect to smart growth principles and monitor housing supply and demand in a near-continuous fashion, it says.
Joseph Schilling of the International City/County Management Association, which represents 7,000 city managers and county executives -- the "CEOs of local government" -- lauded the concept as "an essential tool" to help his members make important land use decisions.
But he said that cost-constrained jurisdictions may have trouble coming up with the funds to put such systems in place. "Many places are in their most serious financial crises in their histories," he said. "And establishing GIS is expensive."
Schilling said many localities will need state and federal resources to transform the idea into practice. And they'll also want to proceed slowly.
"They need to road-test such innovative strategies, and there needs to be case studies to document the lessons learned and prove the idea works," he said.
Knapp also warned that monitoring land won't be a panacea.
"It's not a silver bullet," he said. "Different people are going to see the data in different ways. There's always going to be a debate on how much land is available, but at least land monitoring will create a basis for rational discussion and move the debate to a higher plane."