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: