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IF THE BUFFALO AREA WANTS JOBS, IT CAN'T HAMPER DEVELOPMENT WITH RESTRICTIVE 'REGIONALISM'

The concept of "regionalism" is currently one under which a variety of issues -- not necessarily related -- are being discussed. I believe that a camouflaged, but still permeating, element of the regionalism discussion is the basic question of whether we want Western New York's overall population -- not just certain parts -- to grow.

Do we really want more people, businesses and employment or not? Most people might answer "yes" on balance for the region, but desire the location of such growth only in certain sanctioned areas. Certainly not in one's back yard, but probably not in another person's former cow pasture, either.

Probably even urban planner David Rusk, and those who agree with him, want there to be opportunities in their respective regions for their kids to get jobs. They just don't want that subset of growth, i.e., "sprawl," which corrupts nice, orderly, pretty growth.

The problem is that those factors relating to the corraling of what is called sprawl are, at the same time, inhibitors of increased employment, i.e., business expansion. When, for example, a planning board in Williamsville stops the sale of a zoned property at Main and Los Robles streets and compounds its development veto with a moratorium on the whole village, it (a) sets back the plans for both construction hiring and the hiring by the anticipated business at that location, (b) aborts the tax revenue from the sale of the property to the various levels of government and (c) increases the cost of the developer's project (and the rent to the eventual occupants).

With enough discouragement of this type, the reason for development in any part of Western New York may go away permanently. Any project in Western New York potentially faces alternative sites throughout the world that might be better able to meet growth schedules of these businesses. Potential business occupants do not stay interested in the same development areas forever.

The "not in my back yard" mentality is of the same spirit as the proposed governmental regional planning. In both cases, people are proscribing or prescribing the future locations of other people's development and altering the value of other people's real estate.

Tinkering is going on continually within Western New York's municipalities through amendments to, or total rewritings of, zoning ordinances. It is a usurpation of property rights when possible uses -- legal when a property was purchased -- are altered. When more restrictions are added, the property is devalued.

Such local tinkering, however unfair in an absolute sense, at least has the relative merit of being done by, mostly, one's own town folks, who are accessible by telephone, if not in every case by ballot.

Governmental regional planning, however, involves a whole new threat to current property owners and to those who would want to build, grow their businesses and attempt to increase employment here. Regional planning is localized socialism that is remote from the property owners and prospective occupants of the sites in question.

It is clear that many of the current players on the various regionalism panels have social agendas behind their plans for Western New York, usually involving punishing the suburbs for inflicting damage on Buffalo.

If Buffalo's supposed defenders would take some time from their moralizing, they might notice that Buffalo is far better equipped for job growth than the suburbs because of its in-place infrastructure, vacant (or nearly vacant) industrial areas and greater concentration of highways. It should not need, therefore, an authoritarian, arbitrary line around it.

Buffalo should distinguish itself through administrative performance and encouragement of business. It should not further impede itself with guesses at the proper course of business (those fictions known as "master plans") or complicate itself further politically by being a part of some all-wise regional planning board.

A few people in a government agency (or even a university) cannot process the millions of pieces of data with which the market as a whole deals. Instead, Buffalo should compete, and win the competition, with the suburbs by being the easiest place politically in which to do business, not just locally, but in America.

Instead of more planning, Buffalo should get rid of use restrictions on the vast underused areas that have gone begging for decades. It should trumpet its openness to business on the Internet, ideally as part of a series of related Western New York hot lines (which should integrate, for free, both governmental and private-development service providers).

Indeed, "regionalism" should have nothing to do with structuring governmental coordination and everything to do with simply creating one forum for the world to easily find us -- so that we can grow.

STEPHEN N. HUNT is president and chief executive officer of Hunt Commercial Real Estate Corp.

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