Asked to describe the impossible, one might suggest that an expert fairly describe the historic, legal, and practical processes that define his or her field in just over 100 pages. Harder still if the result must be readable to the uninitiated while offering a point of view and advice to fellow practitioners.
Peter M. Wolf — a New Orleans native with long connections to both East Hampton and Manhattan — has taken his run at the impossible and come as close as anyone to bridging the divide. That he has done so while covering land use planning says more than a little bit about his crisp writing and his ability to convey the importance of his practice.
“Land Use and Abuse in America: A Call to Action” is more guidebook than textbook. And like a good guide, it offers value and insight for those who may never engage the subject as well as for old hands. Surely, in order to embrace Mr. Wolf’s work, a reader must have some interest in how our communities have come to be as they are. And while “What the Dog Saw” is more likely to be spotted on Main Beach, the apres-sun cocktail conversation, at least in some circles, may have more in common with Mr. Wolf’s text than Nelson DeMille’s latest paperback. At least, let’s hope so.
So how can a 7-Eleven open in Montauk (or Des Moines)? By what authority can a planning board deny a second-story apartment (or 27 condos on a dairy farm)? How can farmland be saved in Amagansett (or Humboldt County)? And what the heck is an E.I.S.?
The context and the calculus for most scenarios and the attendant nomenclature are here. And, accordingly, Mr. Wolf’s work should be required reading for aspiring professionals (land planners, architects, developers, and preservationists), as well as elected officials and appointed planning and zoning board members. Similarly, any neighbor of a development project in need of solid facts and a map through the seemingly arcane process of land use decision-making will benefit.
Mr. Wolf delivers the perfect dose of relevant research: eminent domain in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Kelo v. City of New London decision, six billion gallons of municipal drinking water leaking from U.S. pipes each day, China’s soon-to-be 8,000 miles of true high-speed rail compared to a projected 84 miles set to come online in Florida in 2014. The reader is never buried in statistics or leery of how the numbers are represented. In each case, the data buoy the chapter in which they are wrapped.
“Land Use and Abuse
Peter M. Wolf
Still, I sense there is more passion to Mr. Wolf’s view of our landscape than is shared on the page. His work walks us to the edge of the title’s “call to action” just as the reader runs out of pages. There are glimpses of his deeply held opinions, as when he writes fleetingly about the false notion that preserving land cripples a community’s tax base. Or when, as a New Orleanian, he points not to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita but to failed land use planning as the cause of so much suffering and extraordinary expense.
Mr. Wolf clearly knows how our systems work across many levels of government and that each town and village, wetland, zoning board, and developer is distinct.
Through his writing, one senses that Mr. Wolf is an optimist. The two — clear vision and optimism — form a compelling platform for a call to action. Because this book is so well written and informative in a field where so many are not, my hope is that Mr. Wolf is already at work on a companion piece in which there will be no doubt as to whether he has held back a bit in describing the abuse of our natural systems.
Peter M. Wolf, the founder and chairman of the Thomas Moran Trust, runs Peter Wolf Associates, an investment management firm. He was an adjunct professor in the School of Architecture at Cooper Union for 16 years and a chairman of the board of fellows of the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies in New York.
Jeremy D. Samuelson of East Hampton is an environmental advocate with the Group for the East End, a nonprofit land use and conservation organization founded in 1972. He is a former land planner and planning and zoning reporter for The Star, and has written about environmental issues for The New York Times.