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Met Council reports slowdown in land consumption

Continuing a trend that began in the first half of the last decade, the rate at which land is being consumed in the Twin Cities metro area has slowed considerably since the 1990s.

There also are indications that housing densities are rising as more of us baby boomers move into our senior years and no longer want to mow lawns or shovel snow.

These are among the findings of the Metropolitan Council's 2010 land use inventory, which was completed in August. The inventory, conducted every five years, is based on an analysis of data from aerial photography, county parcel data and assessors' information.

The results are good news for critics who complain — fairly or otherwise — that the Met Council hasn't been aggressive enough in restricting growth on the suburban fringe and promoting higher density, transit-friendly development in the urban core.

Among the key findings of the study:


•    The region added 23,000 developed acres from 2005 to 2010, which compares in geographic size to the City of Plymouth. This is an average rate of 4,500 acres per year, compared to 7,500 acres per year during the first half of the decade. During the 1990s, the region consumed land at an average rate of 9,200 acres per year.

•    Residential land in the 2000s developed at a rate of 2.27 households per acre, compared with a rate of 2.16 households per acre in the 1990s. While this may not sound like much, it saved 2,250 acres of land — about the size of the City of Columbia Heights.

•    The region added nearly 18,000 acres of park and recreational land from 2005 to 2010 for a regional total of nearly 200,000 acres, 10 percent of the region's area. The Twin Cities consistently has added park land at a rate of about 3,600 acres per year since the 1990s, compared with 1,400 acres per year during the late 1980s.

All told, the largest single category of land in the seven-county metro area is still agricultural — 30 percent. Another 23 percent is undeveloped and 6 percent is open water. Residential use accounts for 22 percent of the land, with 5 percent as commercial-industrial, 2 percent as institutional and 2 percent as major roadways.

Generalized land use inventory
The rate at which land is being consumed in the metro area has slowed, while housing density has risen.
The rate at which land is being consumed in the metro area has slowed, while housing density has risen.

Key factors
Admittedly, the major factors in the slowdown of land consumption are the recession, the slow-down in the region's population growth and record-low levels of residential construction.

"Comparing the first half of the last decade, the cities and downtowns of the region issued nearly 100,000 residential building permits — 99,129 to be exact," says Libby Starling, the Council's research manager. "In the second half of the decade, the region's cities issued 48,259 building permits."

Guy Peterson
Guy Peterson

However, the reduced rate of land consumption also appears to have been influenced by changing demographic needs and preferences.

"There is no question that cities are planning for more medium- and higher-density development," says Guy Peterson, the Met Council's director of community development. "Younger people are often looking for a more compact, urban setting and at the other end of the spectrum empty nesters often look to move out of their single-family home.

"Land costs are a big factor as well," he says. "Less dense development on more land is typically accompanied by higher costs. As a result, we're seeing and experiencing more infill development."

These trends are reflected in building permit data. In the 2000s, only 44 percent of the residential housing units permitted were single-family detached homes, compared with 67 percent in the 1990s.

Such trends are likely to continue. The Regional Council of Mayors has a new program that is helping members "navigate the new normal" in growth patterns, demographic trends, housing choices and commuting.

"This is a major emphasis of the work we are doing — helping cities to be more sustainable and use land more efficiently," says Caren Dewar, executive director of the group.

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Comments (1)

"Comparing the first half of the last decade, the cities and downtowns of the region issued nearly 100,000 residential building permits — 99,129 to be exact," says Libby Starling, the Council's research manager. "In the second half of the decade, the region's cities issued 48,259 building permits."

Have you found any evidence, Steve, that the residential building permits issued in the last half of the prior decade are for structures that are smaller to any significant degree or consistency? Has the collapse of the housing market, in other words, signaled in any meaningful way the end of the era of the McMansion, or are we simply looking at the natural consequence of an economy with a serious illness?

An old guy myself, I’ve lived in rented apartments, rented houses, owned a condo and single-family houses of modest size on modest-sized lots. As a practicing artist, I doubt that I fit what appears to be the housing trend that’s the focus of the article. I’ve been an “empty-nester” for 20 years, but, of the four housing choices I’ve listed, I much prefer, even as I approach 70 years of age, the last one, though I should emphasize again my preference for housing of modest size.

Yes, single-family ownership brings with it a host of costs and aggravations in terms of maintenance and “chores,” but I’ve not found a landlord who’s willing to let me convert part of his space to a studio for my work, and I can’t afford to rent separate studio and housing spaces. Apartment living doesn’t allow me to work as I need to because of noise issues, and that goes for condo life, as well. In fact, my bias is that condo living represents the worst of both rental and ownership worlds – all the negative issues of apartment living, plus paying property taxes on what in most states, legally, is merely space – and all in exchange for a mortgage-interest tax deduction that may well vanish in a few years with tax code revision.Thus, I still favor single-family ownership – in what I think would qualify as “medium” density – as long as I’m physically able to do the necessary upkeep. It allows me living space and work space for a cost-per-square-foot that the others can’t match.

Beyond my personal circumstance, however, I continue to wonder if the lower consumption of land genuinely indicates a new housing paradigm, as Mr. Peterson suggests, or is merely a reflection of a sick economy that has shed many thousands of construction jobs as home and 401(k) portfolio values have plummeted? While the number of permits for single-family detached homes is rather dramatically different, I’m still left wondering if there’s been some sort of permanent change in public attitudes toward low-density housing and development, or if the changes noted are due mostly to factors beyond the control of home buyers and builders.