Fighting Sprawl: Start with the Government

Some very important people have recently told Vermonters that the Sprawl Monster is stalking the land, and we must mobilize to defeat it before it destroys our happy way of life. The state's leading editorial pages have echoed this point of view . Before we embark on yet another land use control crusade, it is worth getting clear about what exactly is the problem subsumed by the term "sprawl", and just what has caused that problem.

At the risk of putting it cynically, the pejorative "sprawl" can be defined as land development in previously undeveloped areas outside town and city cores, that the speaker doesn't approve of. (Sprawl warrior Gov. Dean, for instance, deplores the Bolton interchange, but loves Husky.)

The typical sprawl warrior values a Vermont of compact cities and towns with vibrant downtown community economic and cultural life, separated by large low-density rural areas comprised of farms, forests, parks, and very little else.

There are two basic reasons for sprawl: individual preferences in a market economy, and government.

A summary paper was distributed at the May conference of the Vermont Forum on Sprawl. Among the causes of sprawl it identified were "lower land prices in peripheral areas", "consumer desire for rural lifestyle with large homes, large yards, safe environment and less traffic congestion" (how irresponsible of consumers!), and of course the bane of environmentalists everywhere, "low cost fuel" (tax it!).

True, there are millions of Americans who love city life and wouldn't be caught dead in a suburb or the God-forsaken backwoods of rural America. But there are also millions of Americans whose idea of the good life for their families is an auto-dependent suburb with one-acre lots,single family homes, shopping malls, multiplexes, megaschools, and not much noise, crime, pollution, and taxes. The preferences of these consumers are the driving force behind sprawl.

But government itself also provides a major impetus toward sprawl. Consider this catalog:

  • zoning, which typically requires large lots and the separation of residential, commercial and industrial uses.
  • labyrinthine building codes, which often make rehab of older downtown buildings too costly to undertake. (Building codes which favor new construction over rehab are a favorite of the construction unions and mass production contractors.)
  • FHA, VA, and VHFA mortgage insurance, which by offering low down payments, 40 year terms, and below market interest rates have made it possible for millions of Americans to buy homes beyond the edge of town.
  • highways which offer short commutes to downtown and suburban jobs.
  • water and sewer lines financed by taxpayers generally instead of assessments on users.
  • overly stringent environmental controls, which prevent the reuse of inner city "brownfield" sites (cf. Burlington's Pine Street Barge Canal)
  • substandard inner city public school systems, coupled with the inability of most parents to pay private school tuition and public school taxes at the same time.
  • equal property tax rates on urban land and improvements (in contrast to Pennsylvania cities like Pittsburgh, which tax empty land at three or four times the rate of improvements, thus forcing the land into development.)

Vermont's Sprawl Warriors have in the past distinguished themselves by their large appetite for government land use controls designed to force their preferences upon everybody else. Their prescription has included people-free green zones between "development centers", public transit, higher gasoline taxes, "ecosystem protection", mandates on developers, population control, and strict observance of the liberal regulatory maxim, "everything not required is prohibited." (Ironically, some of these same people will soon be heard complaining about the non-sprawl expansion of IDX on Shelburne Road in South Burlington.)

Now the past demand for command-and-control land use policies may be changing. Some of those concerned about sprawl are now coming to the realization that pro-sprawl consumer preferences cannot be outlawed by heavy handed state regulation, but there is no reason why the taxpayer should be saddled with subsidizing them.

From this point of view, government should simply stop feeding the Sprawl Monster with more highways, more water and sewer lines, more new schools and municipal services, and continued obstacles to developing within town centers.

Under such a policy people who want to live outside the town center wouldn't get much in the way of municipal services, but would be required to pay only for what they got.

Similarly, building in existing town centers would be encouraged through regulatory relaxation, in-town tax stabilization, and taxing improvements at a fraction of the rate on undeveloped land. (This may require a constitutional amendment, however.)

Town and city centers would be made more attractive by beautification campaigns, pedestrian malls, bicycle facilities, downtown festivals, arts and theatre, tough enforcement against civic disorder offenses (vandalism, panhandling, defacing, etc.), rapid legal process for recycling derelict structures, and striving for maximum efficiency in the delivery of public services (including extensive privatization).

Finally, public land banking would be used either to prevent development of open spaces or to assemble parcels for in-town planned development. It is axiomatic in planning literature that the only sure way for the public to determine growth patterns is for the public to own the interests in real property. By putting land banking costs to the voters, a community will get about as much acquisition as the taxpayers are willing to pay for.

None of these policies will satisfy the old-line land use controller, who is never content unless he has the power to issue orders and have them enforced. They do, however, point in a more productive direction. If the government reverses public policies which have encouraged sprawl, subsidized sprawl will end. Private, self-financed sprawl, where the infrastructure costs are paid by the developer and consumers instead of the taxpayer, will prove to be a much less daunting problem.

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(This special commentary appeared in the Sunday Herald - Times Argus of November 18, 1998).

November 1998

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