Corruption in land used decisions is widespread. Quid pro quo exchanges are relatively common, as are conflicts of interest, especially in small communities. In 2011, Transparency International released a report on land use that found “[a]round the world more than one out of 10 people reported paying bribes when dealing with ordinary land issues.” The United States is far from immune. Consider just a handful of recent examples: The City of Boston has asked for help from the FBI in its approach to corruption, particularly corruption in zoning boards. In 2008, the Chicago Tribune ran an eight-part series on corruption in Chicago real estate decisions. An earlier case revealed that an Indianapolis city official with sway over the zoning board regularly asking for bribes. The former mayor of Charlotte resigned after bribery accusations, including taking cash for influencing zoning decisions. And in a recent review, Minneapolis found that conflicts of interest are common in its planning and zoning boards.
What makes land use planners so susceptible to corruption, even in countries, like the United States, that are not usually thought of as suffering from endemic bribery? Part of the problem concerns the institutional set-up. In a typical U.S. community, there will often be a Planning Commission, responsible for approval of individual site development or demolition plans, oversight of subdivisions, and review of the area’s Master Plan for zoning and development. (For some insight into what these meetings might look like, the City of Syracuse, New York makes its applications and minutes available online.) The community (city or county) would usually also have a Zoning Board of Appeals or Zoning Board of Adjustment—tasked with creating a Master Plan, reviewing zoning ordinance changes, and providing special permits or variances from zoning requirements.
The risk factors associated with this approach to land-use decisionmaking include excessive autonomy, complexity, and delay:
- Autonomy: Land use planning personnel, including the local planning and zoning boards that make land use decisions, are given great power over individual decisions without much oversight. Review by land use decisionmaking bodies involves public hearings with comments from concerned individuals, but decisions ultimately come down to a majority vote of a few people. And each vote counts: The FBI recently charged one instance of a relatively small $3,500 bribe paid to a board member for his vote on a single project. Oversight and accountability mechanisms are weak. Only 23 state ethics commissions have power over local officials. As a result, local lawyers may struggle to advise planning and zoning bodies on the many types of conflicts and suspicious behaviors they may encounter, and board members who have experienced frustration with conflicted colleagues firsthand do not know what to do about it.
- Complexity: Zoning and other land use decisions involve a notoriously convoluted convergence of law and bureaucracy. Though proposed uses in covered areas must typically be “in accordance with a comprehensive plan,” few other universals exist in U.S. land use planning. Cities or municipalities have their own unique bodies, permits, and procedures in place. The World Bank’s Doing Business project details the process for receiving a permit to build a warehouse in New York City (involving 15 separate steps) and Los Angeles (involving 17 steps), tying for 111th and 152nd place out of 212 surveyed countries and cities for the number of separate procedures required to receive final approval. Each step in the process provides an opportunity for bribes or quid pro quo exchanges.
- Delay: In a related concern, the complexity of the system and the many players involved means approvals can stretch on for ages, upping the incentive to grease the wheels at various points in the chain. The World Bank found permit approval for the New York warehouse project would take 89 days—a far cry from the tallied 652 days in Cambodia, but still plenty of time for lots to go wrong. What’s more, these procedures do not include the public hearings and approval by planning or zoning boards that may be delayed (for example, tabled for reconsideration at a future meeting) at boards’ discretion. Aptly-name “expeditors” offer to assist clients—for a fee—in navigating cities’ long and arduous road to land use decisions (see, for example, expeditors in Los Angeles and Chicago). These expeditors may be the center of corrupt dealings—a federal investigation of corruption in Chicago’s land use matters that led to indictments of 15 individuals focused on bribes from a single expeditor. Or, developers may rely on personal friendships with boards and other land use personnel to ease the process.
There are many possible responses to these problems—including more oversight, greater transparency, or heightened consequences for legal violations. In a future post, I will propose a more concentrated plan of attack to address municipal-level zoning and planning board corruption.