A home-building ban in an economic crisis?

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Spring Arts Point builder Sam Sherman stands on the foundations that await construction as part of Phase II of construction. ( David M. Warren / Staff Photographer )

Amid an economic disaster that has brought the home-building industry to its knees, a Pennsylvania lawmaker intends to resume his push for building moratoriums.

A building ban? When federal-stimulus proponents long for a resumption of the construction cacophony of hammers and electric saws?

The moratorium advocate, State Rep. Robert Freeman (D., Northampton), insists he's not hard-hearted when it comes to builders.

"It's important for us to stimulate our economy, so I'd be glad to get the home builders back to work," Freeman said in a recent interview.

He just wants to ensure that when the orders for new houses start pouring in again, communities have a way to temporarily stop the bulldozers if they do not have adequate growth plans and ordinances in place.

"It gives the opportunity for those folks who have been feeling the pressure from development to take a breather," Freeman said of moratoriums.

Municipalities currently have the right to reject a development proposal if it does not meet local land-use requirements. But they cannot simply declare that no building can occur if in fact there is room to accommodate it. Freeman wants to give them the temporary right to do so - but only if a town determines that it is overwhelmed by development and that its growth plans, ordinances, and zoning are inadequate to address that crush.

A bill he sponsored last session would have allowed communities to impose building bans of up to two years if they were rewriting zoning, comprehensive plans, and subdivision and land-development ordinances. The ban could be no more than a year if only one of those land-use documents was being reworked. The bill never made it to a vote.

Freeman, chairman of the House Local Government Committee, said he intended to introduce a new bill in the spring or summer after soliciting input from a variety of parties - including builders.

Rick Buchholz, president of the 500-member Home Builders Association of Bucks/Montgomery Counties, had a swift - and definitive - reaction when a reporter asked him last week about Freeman's plans.

"We certainly would oppose it," said Buchholz, also a vice president at K. Hovnanian Homes, where he specializes in land acquisition.

Buchholz suggested that now was the time for communities to rehab growth policies.

"The market has imposed a moratorium on most building," he said.

Calling Freeman's moratorium plans "absolutely unthinkable, if not irresponsible," Scott Elliott, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Builders Association, cited U.S. Census figures that show a dramatic decline in the number of building permits for single-family homes issued by Pennsylvania towns over the last three years: In 2006, 33,126; in 2007, 23,666; in 2008, 14,620.

"We suggest he use the current home-building slowdown as a time to explore innovative ways builders can be provided incentives to guide construction and use our land resources more effectively," Elliott said.

An extensive rewrite of a comprehensive plan costs tens of thousands of dollars, Freeman said, making it "a difficult sell" right now to most financially pressed municipalities.

At 10,000 Friends of Pennsylvania, an alliance of organizations and individuals that advocates for land-use policies, president and chief executive officer Judith L. Schwank described Freeman's moratorium goal as "noble."

"He gets it that communities really do need to have a vision and then make good on that vision by making sure their [growth] plans and ordinances reflect that," she said.

But his moratorium ambitions have gotten a mixed reaction from 10,000 Friends' board of directors, which includes builders and developers, Schwank said.

Those against a construction ban fear it would kill "really innovative projects" currently on hold that could not financially endure further delays when the current building freeze has thawed, Schwank said.

Developer Jason Duckworth, of Wayne-based Arcadia Land Co., called moratoriums "a pretty blunt instrument for dealing with a very complex problem."

He foresees the ban's inadvertently causing developers to skip over high-growth municipalities - where smart-growth advocates contend development should be steered - in favor of communities that are not currently under growth pressure. The result: more sprawl.

Sprawl is precisely what Freeman has spent the majority of his 27 years in the state House trying to discourage.

He has authored a variety of legislation aimed at encouraging the redevelopment of older towns and the development of walkable, mixed-use communities - known as Traditional Neighborhood Development, or TND - in otherwise auto-dependent suburbs.

He plans to also use this construction downtime to advance legislation that would make it easier for developers to get local approval to build TNDs.

For that Freeman gets praise from builders.

Just this year, the Pennsylvania Builders Association formed the Urban Development Policy Council to work with legislators to encourage local municipalities to allow more TNDs, said Philadelphia developer Sam Sherman. He is a member of the council and president of the Building Industry Association of Philadelphia.

With layoffs shrinking household incomes, Sherman said, the type of housing that will be in demand - the kind consistent with TNDs and urban infill projects - will be more modest in size and price than the typical new suburban construction of the last 20 years.

Sherman said the Pennsylvania Builders group was hoping to work with Freeman "to coalesce around a set of principles" that would meet the lawmaker's land-use goals and would not "scare development away."

"What we're trying to do," Sherman said, "is set the table so when the economy comes back, there's a place for us to thrive."

 


Contact staff writer Diane Mastrull at 215-854-2466 or dmastrull@phillynews.com.