Point of Beginning

On the Level

October 1, 2006


I remember attending a membership meeting of my state surveying association twenty-five years ago at which a legislative aide described proposed legislation to control land development.

The legislation was intended to give local planning officials more power over the land subdivision process. The audience reaction was long and loud in the surveyors' objection to more regulation. That incident has caused me to think often about the accumulating body of law and regulation under which we ply our trade, and our collective attitude toward it. In response to recent commentary concerning government regulation, let's look at the issue from three points of view. There is, after all, a three-cornered table at which the principal players in the land development business sit: the developer, the regulatory body and the surveyor/engineer/designer.

The Developer

Needless to say, the developer would like to see less, not more, regulation. But savvy developers know that it is usually easier to go along and meet the requirements rather than fight it out in court. So they contribute generously to the election campaigns of people who might not be totally opposed to development, then hire the best consultants and lawyers available to shepherd their projects through the permitting stage. The development community is usually well represented by homebuilders' and contractors' associations, chambers of commerce and other advocates who can testify for or against legislation concerning regulation. Developers form strong special interest groups wherever there is an expanding economy and market for housing, shopping malls, office parks and so on.

The Regulators

Regulators are public servants. They are elected by the public or appointed to their positions by elected officials. In either case, regulators are highly sensitive to public opinion.

Regulators appear at every level of government, from the local planning commissions, boards of health and conservation commissions; to the state offices of environmental affairs, highway departments, water commissions and sewer districts; to the federal organizations including the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and many more. These agencies regulate land development in four general categories: public safety (road design, sight distance, fire hydrants), public health (sewage disposal, rubbish removal, water supply), the environment (wetlands protection, stormwater management, endangered species protection) and quality of life (open space, building density control, landscaping).

Some among us, however, have an underlying suspicion that the real purpose of regulation is to slow or halt the pace of development. At the community level, it sometimes seems that the purpose of regulation is to push development onto another community. Regulation rarely, if ever, is designed to encourage or support development. At best, it provides for economy of development in enabling innovative land uses such as cluster zoning and the like. (An exception is Massachusetts' Chapter 40B legislation that allows builders to waive zoning and building requirements if they will provide 25 percent of the units in the development at an "affordable" sales price.) Aside from the possibilities of obstructionist motives, it is important to recognize that regulation is necessary and that regulators do their jobs most often with the best of intentions for the public's health, safety and welfare.

The Surveyor/Engineer/Designer

When it comes to the role of the surveyor/ engineer/designer, I think there are two things we should all remember. First, the body of regulation (laws, rules and specifications) will only continue to grow as legislators and regulators (local, state and federal) continue to address problems of development, whether real or perceived. Those of us who work with the regulations must learn to deal with them rather than to struggle against or find ways around them because, in the second place, new regulations almost always make new work for us.

For instance, surveyors and engineers have had to learn about stormwater management in the past 20 or 30 years at a level of sophistication well beyond what I encountered when I came into the business in 1960. Back then, we merely applied a simple formula for stormwater runoff calculation, designed a pipe size and let the water flow downstream. But stream flooding concerns, wetlands protection and water conservation interests have brought a requirement for careful stormwater management practices demanding more expertise of land development professionals.

Some surveyors have been farsighted enough to develop expertise in the identification of wetlands. Engineers have had to deal with ever more stringent regulations relating to sewage disposal. Surveyors and engineers have had to be more innovative in their design of land uses. In short, the regulatory bodies have provided a kind of job security and prosperity advancement for our profession--at least for those prepared to keep up with new regulatory demands.

This brings me back to that long-ago surveyors' meeting. I wondered then why our profession was so outspoken in opposition to regulation that would only make more work (and higher fees) for us. Those who thought that additional regulation would have a dampening effect on land development have been proven quite wrong. The past half-century has been a rewarding time for surveyors and engineers who have learned to deal with a steadily growing body of regulation over land development. Land development has continued to expand quite profitably for members of the design professions who seized the opportunity to provide the required professional services.