Cluster Clash

One of the more interesting laws to emerge from the 2006 General Assembly is one that promotes the “clustering” of housing in fast-growth counties. An argument can be made that clustering makes a lot of sense in areas zoned for low-density development — say, one house per five or 10 acres. By clustering the houses together instead of smearing them across five-acre lots, developers can (a) create more green space, and (2) economize on the construction of subdivision roads and utilities. Both are desirable outcomes.

However, some observers caution that “clustering” will do nothing to alleviate traffic convestion. The same number of houses still will be served by a bundle of cul-de-sac roads that still empty into the same collector road. Nothing in the legislation promotes connectivity to other subdivisions or other collector roads. The same traffic bottlenecks will exist.

The law strikes me as a modest step forward but an incomplete one. Bob Burke has the goods in his story, “Cluster Clash.”

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19 responses to “Cluster Clash”

  1. Andrea Epps Avatar
    Andrea Epps

    I agree that the law is interesting. It will be interesting to see how it is implemented. VDOT is entering the zoning process. Now, will this help those localities with thousands of lots that have already sailed through zoning? We will see. Clustering is preservative rather than wasteful, but we still need to find a way to get people out of their vehicles and on foot, bike or rail. Sidewalk policies are being revised, from what I understand. Localities with connectivity ordinances need to limit waivers to said ordinances.
    I think that the most logical tool, if localities choose to use it (I hate the word “may” written in the law) will be the transfer of development rights program. This could be combined with a differential proffer system to direct population. From what I have seen, the localities with these types of ordinances are doing well. James City has a PDR program…James City is growing beautifully, and rapidly. Until we can accurately predict human settlement patterns (or choose to use the information we have) we are going to have an issue with transportation.
    I am curious about one thing. What in the world has happened to VDOT?

  2. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    Nothing is going to solve all our problems, we need to look at the tools available and apply them where they work and ignore them otherwise.

    It’s not going to do anything about traffic, but the big enchilada is schools, anyway.

    I’ve alway’s lied the clustering concept, but it does have problems. Usually you “get” five acres or whatever, but most of that is held in common with the others in the cluster. the result is that a) you either can’t do anything with it or you have to get permission, and b) others in the cluster don’t want to pay for maintenance or management so the land goes to hell.

    My wife, on the other hand, hates the idea, along with virtually everyone else I’ve spoen to around here. Such animosity seems strange to me, because the concept is popular and well used on Martha’s Vineyard, where I’m from. Houses can be placed such that they turn their backs on each other so that each home has a rural view. At the same time, the back yards adjoin which can make for a nice social setting.

    I think it much better than one house pluned doun in the middle of every 5 acres or 3, or what have you. Not to far from me a farm was developed and each home sits exactly on top of its own little local knoll. With one home the effect is that of a manor house peering down on land worked by the serfs, but when there are six or seven scattered around at random, just so they can claim thehigh ground, then it just looks silly. What’s worse is that part of this occurs because of the way the septic field regs are written.

    In Fauquier a development recently placed covenants on the property such that agriculture is prohibited. Yet at the same time, they hired a pasture management specialist for the open space portions so that they could agricultural land use assessment. This was not a cluster developmet so far as I know, but the idea still holds.

    The idea is worth pursuing, just for the purpose of “saving” the open space. But more importantly, once you plunk those homes down on five acre lots, you are kind of stuck. But with clustering, you can eventually redevelop into an area with density that makes sense. The open space you “saved” can become school lots, parks, or more housing when you need it.

    As I see it, the real problem is that it will be mandatory, and that will result in even more animosity and backlash towards the idea. When I hear comments like Adrea’s “we need to find a way to get people out of their veihicles and on foot bike or rail”, I just shudder. What I hear is “We need to force people to walk, regardless of how unrealistic.”

    If that is what she wants, she is free to pursue such a place. If enough people agree with her, then such places will happen with creating laws to force them in place. I have a real problem with imposing lifestyle laws on other people whose needs and desires we have no knowledge of and even less understanding. Such comments simply show a lack of imagination and compassion, in my book.

    The only way way re going to accurately predict human settlement patterns is if we mandate them, and if that happens we are guaranteed not to like the results.

  3. Chris Brancato Avatar
    Chris Brancato

    I’d like to put in to be settled in Key West or Hawaii please. Pretty please?

    Wait, I’m sorry, you said human settlement pattern…I guess that leaves me out!

  4. E M Risse Avatar
    E M Risse

    The idea of “clustering” has been around for nine decades – since the dawn of private-vehicle driven settlement patterns for urban dwellings. Bob touches on some, but not all, of the issues of importance raised by this legislation.

    First, there is confusion between “clustering” as used in this legislation and in some municipal plans and controls and the existence of a “cluster.” A cluster is a component of functional human settlement pattern. Clusters were put on the map in the Planned New Community of Reston. We also created clusters in Burke Centre.

    As we point out in “The Shape of the Future” a component of the scale of an Alpha Cluster has been around for at least 50,000 years.

    The reason that Vocabulary and the difference between “clustering” and “cluster” is so important is this enables an understanding of the scale and location questions raised by Trip Pollard in Bob’s article.

    Chapter 4 Box 6 in “The Shape of the Future” provides a way to quantify the cost of alternative scales of “clustering” and the location of a “cluster.”

    Transportation is only one of the elements of the 2.5 times difference between the costs distributions of Alpha Cluster-scale and Alpha Neighborhood scale agglomerations.

    The only way “clustering” will have a beneficial result is to have a New Urban Region-wide settlement pattern framework with a Clear Edge around sustainable patterns and densities of land use in the Urbanside and a functional Countryside outside the Clear Edge. Transfer of development rights (and simplified transfer of property rights) would be valuable tools in this context.

    Also see “The Role of Municipal Planning in the Creation of Dysfunctional Human Settlement Patterns” and “The Shape of Richmond’s Future” at and Part Four (Chapters 23 to 30) of The Shape of the Future.

    Without a region-scale framework, the only “winners” from “clustering” as contemplated by the legislation is the land speculator, the developer and the builder who can lower their costs and shift the burden of overcoming the impact of spacial (sic) disaggregation to the time and resources budget of the dwelling occupant, the enterprise owner, the municipality and society in general.


  5. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    Chris, as far as I know, there is nothing preventing you from doing just that. We all make our “choices”. Sometimes the choice is simply not to give up what we know so well: even when it is deteriorating all around us due to things we can’t control but think we would like to.

    One time during an interview a prospective employer asked me what my idea of the perfect job would be, and I told him I thought the umbrella concession at the Hawaii Hilton would be nice. Good scenery, low stress, plenty of LOPD. I thought it was a good answer, but I didn’t get the job. He thoght I was being a smart mouth and didn’t realize it was he who flunked the test: I didn’t want to work for anyone without a sense of humor.

    Having lived in a resort area, I can tell you that housing is a real problem, at least seasonally. I lived in group houses or on the boat in the summer, but I got paid to live in some really nice homes in the winter.

    If you really want to do it, you had better go quick, before the people who want us to do what they want us to do pass any more laws.

  6. Andrea Epps Avatar
    Andrea Epps

    I apologize for the lack of clarity. We live in an auto dependent, fuel dependent society. Mass transportation, walking and biking have all been around longer than automobiles. Clustering, when well planned and incorporated into mixed use developments, encourages people to work and shop in the area in which they live. (Another idea that has been around longer that I) This in turn, reduces congestion on roads, commute time and accident rates. It also fosters a healthier lifestyle. I did not mean to infer that walking should be mandated.
    Example…San Francisco: There are cars, but the preferred method of transportation in the trolley. It takes you where you want to go, and saves you a fortune in gasoline. Imagine a rail from Va. Beach to D.C. Imagine going around the beltway at a constant speed. If we need to become less dependant on foreign oil, would this not help? The real problem is that humans are fundamentally opposed to change. However, when they get used to the benefits of an idea, sometimes they will give it a chance.
    I do believe the clustering law has an out for localities that want it. I just hate to see land wasted.

  7. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    I apologize for being so harsh. I like your idea of a train to VA Beach or Ocean City. Those are desinations where a train might make sense, especiallly because of the congestion along the way.

    When I was in Lisbon you could take the train to Cascais, which was s similar trip. The train was diert cheap as I recall, maybe a couple of dollars for a forty mile ride. Naturally this was the result of massive subsidies.

    As for San Francisco, mainly tourist use the trolleys, and although San Francisco has a relatively high percentage of transit users it is still far less than half and can hardly be said to be the preferred mode of travel. For the entire transit system San Francisco ridership has been up in recent years, but auto usage is up, too, and trnsit use has decreased as a percentage of population.

    As for trains saving fuel, its a nice idea but it aint so. Theoretically, a train can carry passeengers for less than a car: the cost per seat mile is low. But trains are so heavy that they are at a mass disadvantage to begin with. Then when you figure that the load factor is less than 20% they turn out to be barely more efficient than cars.

    If you look at trains as a total system, the cost of stations is a major factor. By the time you build a system you have used so much fuel you can almost never catch up by virtue of the small savings the train provides.

    If you then consider that you still need the roads and cars to get to the station, then the overall advantage is vanishingly small.

    I like the train, and I use it occaionally. But if I had to pay the full cost for my rides, I wouldn’t: it would be far too expensive. The facts don’t show that it will save us much if any fuel, and it can never attract many riders without massive public support. It is perfectly OK with me if that is what we decide to do, but let’s do it based on the correct information.

    As for walking, it is certainly a good thing and most of us should do more. We should make walking safe and enjoyable where possible. But it most probably won’t reduce traffic congestion a bit. Local shops can never attract enough traffic to suppor the huge variety of goods we now enjoy, and people are unlikely to carry what they buy very far. We have been around and around on this issue, and this is the best information I can figure out.

    Some kinds of neighborhoods do exhibit slightly lower auto uses than others, but we cannot fixate on what the differences are. Two similar neighborhoods in different cities may have very different auto usage. Where there are many walkable amenities, people do walk more and use those amenities, but those are in addition to and not in place of their aut trips. While denser development does eventually lower the number of auto trips, the increased number of people means that the total number of trips still goes up and so does congestion: there are more miles of travel per square mile. As a result pollution is more concentrated where there are more people and more people are exposed to higher levels. Finally, because the congestion is greater in such places, even though there are fewer and shorter trips, more time and expense is consumed in travel. Public transit is almost always more than twice as slow as private auto.

    So, walking is great, and it is true that clustering doesn’t really apply to the urban condition anyway, but we should not encourage walking on the basis that it willsolve our transportation problems: it is just not true.

  8. Andrea Epps Avatar
    Andrea Epps

    I don’t think there is a way to solve the transportation problems. I agree walking won’t have a significant impact. It would however have a slight impact. Maybe if all of the various aspects of transportation could play a more equal role, it would matter. I didn’t even mention busses. Unfortunately, they aren’t popular around here. In just less than 20 years, our population (Chesterfield) grew by 94% and the number of registered vehicles grew by 174%. That is why I support other methods of transportation. There isn’t any road funding…We have gotten into a mess where new development must be passed to pay for needed road improvements and new roads as well. That adds to the population and creates more congestion. I grew up driving through the HR Bay-Bridge Tunnel. Our traffic isn’t that bad…yet. However, we have a high accident rate and lots of country roads. (I prefer country roads; drivers have no choice but to slow down)
    We opened 288 and it is operating well above what was expected, already.
    Every book I have read on land use is clear in noting that if high rate residential growth is desired build a limited access roadway and grow rapidly you will. The problem comes when the remaining infrastructure isn’t properly timed.Some localities adopt a primary service area into their comprehensive plans. All new development must be inside the PSA. It directs growth and conserves land. That is wonderful in theory. It is only successful if the officials keep to the plan.
    But… I love it here, so I’ll just keep reading! I appreciate your insight. I like as many opinions as I can get. BTW… what do you think we should do (statewide) to repair the ailing transportation system?

  9. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Andrea, You asked, “What do you think we should do (statewide) to repair the ailing transportation system?”

    That has been the number one topic of interest of Bacon’s Rebellion over the past year or more. The analysis, solutions and commentary proffered on this blog, and the columns and articles in the e-zine, are so numerous and detailed that I cannot recapitulate them here. Just scroll through back weeks of the blog, or click here to see a list of transportation and land use-related articles and columns published in the e-zine.

  10. Jim Patrick Avatar
    Jim Patrick

    SB374 is pure poison to agricultural counties. It’s the developers’ dream —by developers for developers— of open-season to construct tract housing across our farmlands.

    Shenandoah County, Virginia’s fifth largest agricultural producer, had a 10-year growth rate of 11% mandating application of this law. That most of this growth was intentionally confined to towns and two defined public service areas (PSA) appears to be irrelevant to this legislation.

    Now the County is forced to open 40% of its land to this clustering nightmare; the town zonings responsible for the growth rate are unaffected.

    In an effort to control the loss of farm and rural-use lands, Shenandoah County’s by-right (administrative) subdivision of agricultural zoned lots is limited to one lot per three years. More divisions are only possible through rezoning, allowing proffers or conditions that minimize the damage to adjacent farm operations.

    Unless subdivision is controlled by the choice of the privileged classes —minimum lot size requirements— developments embedded into farmland are now by-right, regardless of its effect.

    Though I can’t speak for them, approximately the same zoning procedures and the same negative effects from this law are felt in the agricultural core of Rockingham (#1), Augusta (#2), and Page (#4) Counties. Together, we four counties produce 30% of the state’s total harvest.

    ‘Clustering’ is generally a scam, another buzzword to hoodwink the populace. Anyone familiar with the real operation of homeowners’ associations knows that Watkin’s bill just puts the open-space on hold for future residential development.

  11. C. P. Zilliacus Avatar
    C. P. Zilliacus

    A friend has this line, which is quite accurate:

    Residential housing densities don’t ride mass transit.

    I’ve seen repeated attempts to increase transit patronage through residenital densification in Montgomery County, Maryland (where I live), and with the exception of garden apartments built for low-income families, all have failed.

  12. Jim Wamsley Avatar
    Jim Wamsley

    Residential housing densities don’t ride mass transit.

    Right! People ride transit.

    Seriously, no one knows because the numbers of residents in areas where housing densities have increased are small and no one will pay to get good data.

    Instead let’s go to the schoolhouse. If you are in an area where 10% of the residents ride transit and 90% drive and you double the density you will end up with 10% of the residents riding transit and 90% driving. Our schoolhouse example. Fifty houses produce 5 transit riders and 45 drivers. How many do 100 houses produce? Ten transit riders and 90 drivers.

    Now lets do a school house Transit Oriented Development one. Fifty houses produce 5 transit riders and 45 drivers. How many do 500 houses produce, with 8 times the bus service? What happens to the drivers trips with the destinations increased by 10?
    We now get 168 riders. Drivers are 332. Trip length goes down but this depends on the development. If in the past 45 drivers averaged driving produced 10 miles a trip, or 450 miles. Now 332 drivers may now average driving 1 mile a trip or 332 miles. Thus reducing congestion. And, you may even find individuals walking to destinations!

  13. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    Jim Walmsley: I like the argument but I don’t think it is supportable because no one will pay to get good data.

    As far as I can figure out, what we know is that increased density decreases driving a little bit, but not as much as the density increases.

    What we know is that we can’t predict from one neighbor hood to the next how much that decrease in density is likely to be. Just because you build a TOD development doesn’t mean that you will actually get transit oriented residents, especially if zoning preferences make only TOD residences available.

    What we know is that the availability of transit does not mean anyone will ride it: there are many, many empty bus and Metro seats traveling around.

    What we know is that even when walking destinations are available and used, they turn out to be in addition to driving trips, not instead of.

    I have no idea what your basis is for reducing the trip length from 10 miles to one, but I would suggest that a more likely scenario is reducing ten trips per house to eight or seven and keeping the trip lenght the same or increasing it slightly. We already know of people wh drive right past Springfield and Landmark mall in order to travel to Pentagon, Tysons, or Potomac Mills. We already know that urban dwellers frequently drive to the suburbs in order to buy at the big box stores.

    I think your last two paragraphs are a nice idea, and I hope you are right, but I don’t see a lot of substance in the ideas, but more like wishful thinking. If that wishful thinking means we have to build a lot of TOD and multiply the bus service by eight only to later find out we were wrong, well, then we are going to wish we had paid people for the right data up front.

  14. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    Andrea, I don’t think the number of registered vehicles makes a lot of difference. The reason I don’t think so is because we have so many special purpose vehicles. We have hobby motorcycles, and where women used to ride behind, now they drive their own, so that is two hobby vehicles. We have campers. We have show cars, and the Sports car that is only for the Sunday drive. We have the second hand pickup, just for garden chores and dump trips.

    I have seven registered vehicles, each for its own job, but I only drive one at a time.

    I also don’t think VMT means a hoot, either. Yes, less VMT is good because it means less pollution, all else equal. But if less VMT means more density and more congestion, then things are no longer equal.

    The only VMT that makes any real difference is that which occurs in the most congested areas at the most congested times.

    Most of the day you can play baseball or frisbee on the state highway in front of my house. Even during rush hour, it is not crowded. But when those few cars combine with a few cars from everyplace else that is like mine, and when they all combine at Route 66 and the beltway with no place else to go, then you have a problem.

    90% of our roads are uncongested 90% of the time. 45% of our traffic occurs on and during the other two ten percents, and THAT is the problem.

    Zillacious is absolutely correct. We have spent millions and millions on mass transit systems across the country, and mass transit ridership is up, but so is driving. So despite our massive expenditures the percentage of mass transit riders is down.

    It is largely a failure and a waste of public funds. In some places the operators are so desperate for riders they have made the transit free, as with Miami’s PRT system.

    We are going to have pretty much a given rate of residential growth for the next twenty years,and the people who will cause it have already been born. They are presently populating all those new schools we have been building. Or else they are in trailers because we didn’t build the schools.

    Roads have got nothing whatever to do with residential growth. What they do have to do with is where it occurs. It would be nice if everyone lived next to where they work and could walk to the office, but it is impossible. It is statistically, physically, economically, and socially impossible.

    What we need to be figuring out is not how much we will grow. We know that number. Now the question is where, and how are we going to move them from where they are to where they want to be. How many places are we going to make that they want to be, and how are we going to connect those places? One choice is to not do it, let them suffer in their own exhaust smoke and reduced opportunities. Let them live with their parents until they are forty.

    Patrick points out that development in Shenandoah was previously limited to the towns and the towns grew accordingly. Unfortunately, Shenadoah failed to figure out how to make sure the farmers got some of the wealth that growth creates. By directing growth to the towns, they cheated the farmers and benefited certain landowners.

    So why is it that development embedded in farmland is now by-right? It is because the farm owners demanded it. Note that the farm owners may not be the same as the farmers, but that is another issue. Regardless of how you look at it, if the farmers were making enough money to keep the farmland open, they would. But they are not, like farmers across the region they are among the poorest in the community and growth is leaving them farther and farther behind. Until we include them in our success we will continue to lose them.

    You can say whatever you want, but when a farmer is economically and physically, and emotionally exhausted from trying to do the near impossible, when he finally fails and falls flat on his face in the field, then it is the developer who helps him up, not the conservationists.

    It is the developer who knows how to comply with all the rules that were designed to “save” the farms.

    What saving the farms really takes is money. When the farms are profitable, they will stick around. Right now, we are paying for workforce housing. In Fairfax the government is turning into developers on government vacant land. They are basically giving away land that we all bought and paid for. So, if we build enough cheap housing and put it where we want the cheap housing people to live, then they will live there instead of on new farmland.

    That is one way to spend money to try to save farmland, but it won’t work because it doesn’t help the farmers: they are still broke, and they will do what it takes to get out of that condition.

    In Shenandoah administrative lots are limited to one per three years. In Fauquier they are limited to one, period. All you have to do is look at the price of farmland, and look at the price of building lots to see which one is in demand. All you have to do is compare the price for the farmers products to the price for the developers products, to see which one is in demand. Until you fix that disparity, farmland will continue to disappear.

    How much land do you think Fairfax is going to have to give away to fix that disparity? How much do you think it will cost and where will they get it?

    If we decide to keep the farms around for the viewscape and the habitat, fine. But we need to pay the farmers for providing viewscape and habitat. If we want to protect our watersheds by passing laws to preventbuilding there, fine. But what we have now done is changed the value of watershed, without changing the price. Those people who are stuck with providing our watershed are going to need to get paid for the service, otherwise we are stealing.

    We can choose to raise the money to conserve farmland by rasing taxes or by fundraisers. Then we can go out and buy the land that most needs to be saved.

    Whatever method we use is going to cost money. And whatever method we use we are still going to have to plan for housing and transportation. I don’t believe that you can make very much change in that demand, without spending an awful, awful, lot of money.

  15. Jim Patrick Avatar
    Jim Patrick

    Ray Hyde claims, “So why is it that development embedded in farmland is now by-right? It is because the farm owners demanded it.

    That’s not true. Absolutely untrue; absolutely fabricated.

    The pressure from organized farmers in Shenandoah County is to block all future residential development. Being realists, they’ll settle for a hard and fast, restricted and permanent limit on subdivisions. Sliding-scale zoning is their goal.

    Non-organized farmers aren’t sure about the recently introduced sliding-scale, and lean toward a simpler or more understandable solution. [‘Solution’= agreed by all to be the drastic slowing of developer-driven residential growth] The general feeling is that one administrative plat per two years -with no development rezonings at all- is perfectly acceptable.

    No, the folks advocating Ray Hyde’s position are out-of-area developers. Local builders sometimes stretch the truth, but they’ve never come close to Hyde’s claims.

    The only truth in Hyde’s comment is that the General Assembly was scammed by lines like the ‘developer helping the poor farmer‘, the concept that farmers “are among the poorest in the community and growth is leaving them farther and farther behind” and that they are “exhausted from trying to do the near impossible“.

    These myths feed into popular misconceptions, but it was developers, not farmers, who hustled the General Assembly – with some inside help. It was and is a scam.

  16. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    I can tell you for a simple historical fact, that the sliding scale adopted in Fauquier county had the net effect, over thirty years, of screwing my wife’s family,

  17. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    The only fact that matters is that farmers are among the poorest in the fommunity. As long as that is true, the rest of your argumments are meaningless.

    You need to find a way to raise the framers pay. Anything else is stupid, if open space is the goal.

  18. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    One of the problems is that newcomers far outnumber the originals. Numerically, they are far too willing to propose regulatios that make their existence geographically possible,

  19. Rick Christ Avatar
    Rick Christ

    Sliding scale zoning will not solve the growth problems in Shenandoah County. In fact NO plan promulgated solely by the county will begin to solve the problem. That’s because the growth isn’t in areas under the county’s control — it’s in the towns. As long as the towns continue to bring county land into the towns and grant rezoning to higher density, we’ll continue to grow. Then the rural property owners will pay twice: first, with higher taxes, as they help pay for more schools and other services required by growth, and second, when the county resticts their right to develop their own land, in a vain attempt to control growth. See more at:

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