February 16, 1999
By launching a multibillon-dollar ''livability agenda'' in its fiscal year 2000 budget, the White House has catapulted a six-letter word from local zoning meetings to the national political stage: sprawl.
For most people, sprawl means suburban development that's gone too far. Lots of folks aren't happy about it.
A loose coalition of environmentalists, urban planners and social critics blame most modern ills on sprawl.
''Sprawl lies at the heart of urban decline, racial polarization, . . . disappearing farmland and wildlife habitat, and the erosion of community,'' said a briefing book by the Sprawl Watch Clearinghouse, a group that links anti-sprawl organizations to donors.
Vice President Al Gore, who may make sprawl a top issue in his 2000 presidential campaign, puts the issue personally. When he introduced the budget on Feb. 1, he said the new ''smart growth'' programs the White House backs will let Americans spend ''less time stuck in traffic and more time reading to their children.''
But one person's sprawl is another's new dream home. With a strong economy and low interest rates, the market for new homes is booming. The fastest growth is in the ''outer suburbs'' that were once farms or undeveloped rural areas.
Businesses are following their workers out of central business districts and creating office complexes that journalist Joel Garreau called ''edge cities.''
It's also not clear that the programs Gore is pushing would ease traffic, cut pollution or improve the quality of life. They would give the federal government a lot more power, though.
While Americans like their suburban homes, many worry about the pace of development.
In a recent survey conducted by the Polling Company for the Washington-based Competitive Enterprise Institute, 44% of those polled said that ''urban sprawl'' was a minor concern in their area. Another 23% listed it as a major concern.
In good economic times, minor concerns can drive elections.
''(With) full employment and relative peace in the world, a politician who wants to run for office has to focus on what's upsetting voters,'' said Steven Hayward, a fellow at the Heritage Foundation and Pacific Research Institute who's written about planning issues.
''In a lot of growing areas around the country, people are upset about rising traffic congestion, crowded schools, loss of open space - essentially, change,'' he said.
Hayward, a critic of smart-growth regulations, conceded that ''on the surface, (they sound) very appealing'' to voters.
He added: ''It's very clever for someone to come along and say, 'I have your quality of life in mind, and I'm going to use the power of the government to preserve your quality of life through better planning.' ''
Giving land-use planners more power seems popular these days. A Brookings Institution analysis by environmental consultant Phyllis Myers found that voters passed 72% of the 240 state and local conservation measures on the November ballot.
Environmentalists say those results signal a mandate to stop sprawl.
But Myers, who runs the consulting firm State Resource Strategies, says this isn't the case everywhere.
''When people were voting for conservation measures, they were not necessarily voting for a whole package of programs to deal with sprawl,'' Myers said.
Her Brookings analysis notes that many measures were fairly typical, such as money for parks. These usually pass when the economy's strong.
Some big anti-sprawl measures passed. One was a constitutional amendment to protect half of New Jersey's undeveloped land. Another imposed boundaries to restrain urban growth in California's San Francisco Bay area and in Ventura County, which is northwest of Los Angeles.
Yet some of the most highly touted smart-growth measures failed. Among them were urban growth boundaries for San Diego County, Calif., and a statewide 1% hike in Georgia real estate taxes for a fund that would let the state buy open space.
Critics of growth controls say the public's perception of sprawl often doesn't match reality.
''We do not have a crisis of land in the United States,'' said Sam Staley, director of the Urban Futures Program at the Reason Public Policy Institute in Los Angeles.
Staley points out that only 5% of U.S. land is developed, and no state has more than a third of its land developed for urban use.
Farmland loss has declined since the 1970s, Staley says. Much of this loss has occurred because farms have gotten more efficient. ''What is really driving the loss of farmland is that we're so productive that we don't need that much land (to produce food),'' he said.
Staley says people tend to notice development when familiar landscapes disappear.
''You've moved out (of the city) and you've gotten used to that cornfield next to you,'' he said. ''You don't want to see that cornfield disappear and see houses there, when you've gotten used to all that rural privacy.''
Even though Americans may be concerned about sprawl, they may not support the smart-growth approach, Staley and others argue.
The CEI poll on sprawl found that 55% prefer to let people ''choose for themselves the size and locations of their homes'' rather than having government ''step in and control the size of new housing developments and prevent the development of farmland.''
Critics also say smart growth doesn't deliver what it promises. Smart-growth fans constantly attack traffic congestion. But the growth limits they push would pack more people into smaller areas, perhaps leading to even more congestion.
Randal O'Toole, a visiting economics scholar at the University of California at Berkeley, notes that planners in Portland, Ore., and Minnesota's Twin Cities actually say congestion's a good thing in the short term, because it makes subways, buses and other mass transit more attractive.
More congestion also leads to more air pollution, at least locally.
Comparing data from the Census Bureau and the Environmental Protection Agency, O'Toole found that the most densely populated cities had the worst air pollution. He also noted that in most cities, population density didn't keep people from driving.
As land for development gets taken out of circulation, home prices tend to rise. Portland, Ore., which has had urban-growth boundaries for 20 years, has seen home prices double during the 1990s. Fans of the boundaries attribute much of the hike to the region's popularity.
But critics such as the Cascade Policy Institute in Portland say that land just outside the city's boundary costs $100,000 more an acre than land just inside it.
The CEI poll also found that 67% of Americans want state and local governments to handle sprawl. That doesn't look likely if Gore becomes president.
Gore has said that the ''federal government's role should never be that of beauty commissar'' and should only assist states with land-use planning. But the 2000 budget would give federal agencies a big new role in designing the programs they fund.
At a land-use conference cosponsored by the EPA in Boston earlier this month, a top EPA official wasn't shy about pushing bold new plans.
The Bureau of National Affairs reports that John DeVillars, head of the EPA's New England regional office, said that his agency would control sprawl with its current power to approve or deny federal projects and to protect wetlands.
''EPA will oppose projects that contribute to sprawl and, where appropriate, require mitigation measures to address sprawl-related impacts,'' DeVillars said.
At a session on building better suburbs, even bolder measures were entertained. A suggestion to amend the U.S. Constitution so that property development would become a privilege rather than a right was ''very, very warmly received'' by the audience of planners and environmentalists, moderator John Mullin said.
Mullin, a professor of urban planning at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, says he's not yet ready to go that far.
Still, he says, at the meeting, he invoked his hero Rexford Guy Tugwell, a member of President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal ''brain trust.''
''At one time, (Tugwell) argued that planning should be the fourth arm of government,'' Mullin said. ''(Along with) the judiciary, the executive and the legislative, the fourth (branch) would be planning.''
(C) Copyright 1999 Investors Business Daily, Inc.
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Professor Randall Holcombe discusses the issue of "sprawl" in his defense of the free market as the guarantee of the quality of life. See his interview in the Austrian Economics Newsletter.
Lew Rockwell discusses the historical precedents to Gore-style central planning in his recent speech.