The Fast-Moving Fight to Stop Urban Sprawl
Louden County, Virginia, the third-fastest-growing county in the country, could easily become the outward-most link in the Washington, D.C. “edge city” corridor. The commute to the nation’s capitol is only an hour and a half, land is cheap, and 5,000-square-foot homes are invading the landscape with all the force of a flock of locusts. Over the next five years, 40,000 new houses are slated for development on county open space and farmland.
But last November, in an extraordinary mandate, Louden County activists decided it was time to call a halt to the congestion, pollution and destruction of greenspace threatening their way of life. A slate of eight anti-sprawl candidates challenged the incumbents on the County Board of Supervisors—and won.
“It was an astounding victory,” says Joe Maio, director of Voters to Stop Sprawl, a PAC that endorsed all eight of the newly elected supervisors. “It was a complete repudiation of the way business is done around here.”
Louden County’s coup d’etat may be unique in the annals of local politics. But grassroots efforts to combat sprawl are anything but. In response to tremendous growth pressures, communities around the country are advocating for “smart growth”: a controlled planning process that encourages sustainable development and preservation of open space and farmland. The results, as the Sierra Club’s sprawl coordinator, Deron Lovaas, puts it, are “thrilling.”
Consider, for example, that in 1999, voters passed more than 70 percent of 240 local ballot initiatives governing preservation of open space, creating more than $7.5 billion in funding for land conservation. A record 1,000 state land use reform bills were introduced in legislatures last year, and over 200 of those were enacted into law. And ever since Maryland joined 10 other states last year in adopting a much-publicized smart growth strategy, several other states are considering comprehensive growth management plans or major land purchases to preserve open land. Colorado and Arizona are debating legislation requiring urban growth boundaries, as is Tennessee, the first state in the conservative south to pass a comprehensive growth management act.
Momentum is also building at the federal level. President Bill Clinton’s 2000 budget includes a $1 billion Land Legacy Initiative, the largest one-year investment for land protection. The U.S. Senate Smart Growth Task Force is studying the role federal policies play in exacerbating sprawl; a similar task force has been organized in the House by Congressman Earl Blumenauer (D-OR). In January, President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore launched their Livability Agenda, a series of initiatives to curb urban sprawl and promote quality of life.
“Normally you spend years hammering away at an environmental issue, trying to attract people’s attention to it,” says Lovaas. “But people are sick and tired of sprawl. The issue has become so hot so quickly that we are seeing solutions being considered and passed all over the country.”
A Slow Awakening
The smart growth movement has become a force to contend with largely because it has enlisted the services of a broad coalition of supporters, from environmentalists to affordable housing advocates. Yet the obstacles they must overcome are equally formidable. For all the talk about urban growth boundaries, anti-growth measures and preservation of open space, the effort to get bills passed and enforced still confounds plenty of communities across the country. Urban planners wax poetic about downtown revitalization and high-density development, but proliferating “sprawl cities” show just how hard it will be to reverse dominant trends.
Consider, for example, the second chapter of the Louden County story. Virginia is one of the few remaining “Dillon states” in the country—local jurisdictions are subordinate to the powers of the state. Legislators in Richmond, Virginia’s capitol, have yet to acknowledge municipal opposition to sprawl. Last year, five of the six smart growth bills never made it out of committee; the sixth was defeated on the floor.
Entrenched political attitudes at the state level have cast a shadow over the newly elected Louden County Board of Supervisors. Although county officials have issued policy statements and begun to revise the comprehensive plan, they cannot move forward without a directive from the state.
“Our next goal is to remove some of those people in Richmond from office,” says Maio. “The governor keeps saying we have enough measures to control growth and the board of supervisors is going to test that.”
Another kind of sprawl war is being fought over Newhall Ranch, the largest housing development ever approved by Los Angeles County. During the next 20 years, 21,600 units are to be built in an unincorporated area bordering Ventura County, a rural enclave that has generally been sympathetic to slow-growth measures. Explaining their support for the project, Los Angeles County Supervisors claimed single-family homes with private backyards were part of the American birthright in general and the culture of Los Angeles in particular.
Lynne Plambeck, vice president of the Santa Clarita Organization for Planning and Environment (SCOPE), begged to differ. “You’re just vaporizing your open space and watershed and indiscriminately paving it over for something that I can’t see as a genuine need,” she told the New York Times. SCOPE is part of a coalition made up of environmental groups, Ventura County and the state attorney general’s office who are challenging the development’s environmental review.
To understand how sprawl has come to dominate so many aspects of American life, urban historians look to the post-war years, when federal transportation and mortgage policies gave birth to the nation’s first “car burbs.” For years, Federal Housing Administration (FHA) loans encouraged people to purchase homes in the suburbs; meanwhile, the massive National Highway Act encouraged development to move ever outward. Today, suburban developments are artifacts of zoning statutes that require separation of residential, retail and work spaces, and mortgage and property tax deductions that encourage large single-family dwellings and two-car garages.
“The reason for sprawl in the United States is that it is legally mandated,” says Robert Liberty, director of 1000 Friends of Oregon, a land use and environmental group. “In most suburban communities, it’s against the law to build apartment buildings, it’s against the law to build duplexes, it’s against the law to have small lots.”
The explicit suburban bias in public policy has gone unchallenged for decades. Only recently have people come to recognize that traffic, pollution and destruction of greenspace are the unwanted side effects of growth and “prosperity.” Fueled by the longest peacetime economic expansion in U.S. history, development has claimed twice as much land between 1992 and 1997 as in the previous decade. Between 1982 and 1992, the U.S. lost an average of 400,000 acres of farmland to development every year. The costs are aesthetic, ecologi
cal and economic. In Louden County, for example, the costs to provide services to 1,000 new development units exceeded their tax contribution by approximately $2.3 million.
There is also a growing awareness among eco-justice advocates, urban planners and community activists that the environmental problems faced by the suburbs go hand in hand with the social problems facing urban areas. Businesses that locate in the suburbs receive more tax breaks than those that locate in the city. Transportation policies favor road building at the expense of urban oriented mass transit; artificially low gas prices benefit the suburban commuter, not the urban bus rider. The majority of federal housing subsidies go to wealthy suburban homeowners, not the inner city renter or the low-income homebuyer.
To restructure policy in favor of smart growth, activists must tackle transportation, environmental and housing law, as well as outdated forms of government that fail to recognize the cross-jurisdictional nature of sustainable development issues: transportation, air quality, wildlife habitat. Applying innovative approaches to open space protection, urban planning and zoning, anti-sprawl forces have altered the rules of the land development game: from exploitation of a natural resource to an appreciation of its visual, social and ecological impact.
Less than two decades old, the design strategy known as new urbanism is already a classic example of smart growth principles. The brainchild of architects Andres Duany and Peter Calthorpe, these neo-traditional communities consist of mixed-use residential, office and retail developments organized around clear public centers: parks, libraries and town squares. Because new urbanism seeks to recreate the feel of classic American neighborhoods, homes in these communities are usually located on narrow tree-lined streets and feature people-friendly front porches, hidden garages and craftsman-style or row-house architecture. Many developments are also built around mass transit stations, giving residents easy access to buses or light rail.
Today, over 200 new urbanist projects are under construction, and the design is used not just in the suburbs, but in urban infill projects across the country. Sustainability is only part of its appeal. As social critics note, new urbanism is compelling because it locates the answer to sprawl in the American desire to resurrect community. By privileging public transit and pedestrian-oriented pathways and incorporating mixed-use zoning and open spaces, new urbanism makes communal areas the nexus of a new American lifestyle.
“Public space is essential for a public or communal life,” says University of West Florida sociology professor Ray Oldenberg, who has written extensively on the importance of “third places” (alternatives to work and home) in American life. “Under negative zoning, Americans have to get into the car for everything and cars isolate and insulate them from the environment. At automobile destinations, furthermore, people encounter strangers and remain strangers. When the necessities of daily life are located within walking distance, there will be community.”
Just ask Watson Russell, a Portland, Oregon interior designer and the father of two teenage boys. A year ago, Russell moved his family into a house in Orenco Station, a New Urbanist community in suburban Portland and recipient of the 1998 Governor’s Livability Award.
“It’s simple; we moved here because of the community atmosphere,” says Russell. Before moving to Orenco, he says, the family lived in a large house with a lot of land. “But we never really talked to our neighbors,” he says. “We like the fact that the open areas here really draw out the neighbors. Just walking to the restaurant in the town center, we’ve gotten to know a lot of people. And we spend more time on our front porch here than we ever did on our old backyard patio.”
Ideally, new urbanist communities retain housing for diverse ages, races and incomes. Critics, however, argue that new urbanist developments are upscale—and artificial—renditions of turn of the century middle class neighborhoods. Houses in Orenco Station, for example, start around $200,000 and attract mostly wealthy empty nesters and engineers who bicycle to Intel, the neighboring microchip corporation.
Class divisions notwithstanding, the notion of community and public space embodied in new urbanist philosophy has captured the public imagination. And for the smart growth movement as a whole, inclusiveness—social, racial, economic—has become a categorical imperative. The logic is simple. Zoning ordinances not only encourage sprawl by mandating large single-family homes, but they also discourage the apartment buildings and small lots associated with affordable housing and inner city development.
“We need to have much less segregation of race and income imposed through regulation than we have had in the past,” says Liberty. “Here’s where environmentalists and affordable housing advocates have common cause; breaking down barriers to mixed income housing has such great environmental and social benefits.”
Smart growth, in other words, isn’t just an environmental strategy; it’s an environmental justice strategy. What makes the issue so complex, however, is that the urban renaissance sweeping many of the nation’s cities has simultaneously displaced large numbers of minority and low-income families. Focusing development on the inner city instead of the suburbs doesn’t automatically translate into more affordable housing. It takes community development activists to steer revitalization away from gentrification and toward something urban planners call “incumbent upgrading”: neighborhood improvements that benefit existing residents rather than newcomers.
In San Francisco, for example, the Greenbelt Alliance Compact Development Endorsement Program supports infill housing and developments if they are transit oriented or affordable. The Sierra Club has also partnered with the Center for Community Change, a national non-profit community development group. In Portland, Oregon the 40-member Coalition for a Livable Future was instrumental in guiding the region’s growth management plan; along the same lines, the city of Portland will conduct a racial impact study examining the effects of a new light rail line on a largely minority neighborhood.
“What’s exciting about the sprawl issue,” says Lovaas, “is that it wraps in those who are concerned about social/economic or ‘people’ issues that are a product of disinvestment in urban areas, plus greens who are concerned about the land and the wildlife which are jeopardized by encroaching development.”
Inclusiveness in smart growth has also become a resource and governance issue. Ignoring the cross-jurisdictional nature of issues such as congestion and air pollution, many local governments operate as fragmented isolated entities. This aggravates efforts to solve regional problems and exacerbates polarization by race and income. In most parts of the country, for example, property taxes from new developments benefit only the municipality in which they are located, leaving the coffers of neighboring communities empty. Thus if a high tech company moves to the suburbs, the adjacent city loses out on the new revenue—even though it pays the price in the form of increased polluti
on and commuter traffic.
The state of Minnesota has come up with a regional tax-sharing approach that allows more impoverished urban areas to benefit from suburban wealth. In the Twin Cities, 40 percent of new industrial and commercial property taxes are distributed to every community in the metropolitan area. The Mall of America, for example, is located in suburban Bloomington; taxes from the massive development, however, are also shared by the city of Minneapolis.
Against the Tide
Bound by common interests and concerns, coalition builders and regional governments still swim against the tide. Portland, Oregon, for example, is nationally recognized for containing growth in the metropolitan area. Nonetheless, gentrification has claimed much of the inner city, and strip malls and cookie cutter subdivisions dominate much of the landscape inside the urban growth boundary. Last year, Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber signed into law a bill outlawing inclusionary zoning—a statute change which would have required new developments to include a set percentage of affordable housing units. The defeat came at the hands of the home builders association, which launched what Liberty called a “preemptive strike” against activist efforts to promote fair-share housing.
Although a well-organized “anti-smart growth” movement has yet to materialize, in the last couple of years, property rights advocates and home builders have stepped up their efforts to discredit growth management in general and land use and zoning regulations in particular. The Private Property Rights Implementation Act of 1999 deals a serious blow to local government control, as it allows developers to bypass local land use regulations and bring their case directly in front of a federal court. Last year, Charles Ruma, president of the National Association of Home Builders, delivered a speech against Oregon’s land use law, which he said reduced choices and raised the cost of housing. This kind of argument infuriates smart growth advocates, who point, among other things, to the skyrocketing housing prices in sprawl cities such as Los Angeles.
“The Homebuilders Association…complains that we are locking everything up,” Rey Ramsey, president of the Maryland-based Enterprise Foundation, told The Oregonian. “But I look at these people and say, ‘You’re still gobbling land at an unprecedented pace, and you’re worried that you’re losing?’ We can’t sustain this.”
Inspired by libertarian philosophy and funded by corporate lobbyists, the “forces of sprawl” also have the weight of tradition on their side. Smart growth fever hasn’t caught on everywhere; the majority of states have yet to pass comprehensive growth management plans, which mandate or encourage local planning according to statewide standards and result in land use regulations such as density requirements and urban growth boundaries. Other states are merely paying lip service to the notion of comprehensive planning. Georgia and Florida, for example, have had growth management laws on the books for over a decade. Because of lax enforcement, however, sprawl is unchecked in both Atlanta and Tampa.
Vigilance is also required in the case of brownfield development: the use of previously developed commercial and industrial sites to accommodate growth instead of farmland or forests. In 1993, the EPA began encouraging brownfield development to help communities clean up the estimated 450,000 brownfield properties across the country. Although 28 states have implemented such programs, environmental and health standards are often weak or non-existent.
“Some brownfields are industrial sites and are still polluted,” says Lovaas. “You have to make sure cleanup is done appropriately. You have to set the bar high enough.”
Keeping it Green
To appreciate the sheer scope of the smart growth movement, envision an epic battle between centripetal and centrifugal forces. As suburban development continues to spillover into rural areas, activists seek to contain growth by focusing on the inner city and the creation of high-density urban centers. At the same time, environmentalists themselves are moving to the edges of cities and suburban areas, preserving large tracts of open land for agricultural, ecological, cultural or recreational purposes.
Measures to protect greenspaces and farmland have increased exponentially in the last couple of years, as state and local governments acquire and manage land or obtain it directly from private landowners. Alabama voters have established a state land trust financed by revenues from oil and gas taxes. Arizona and Colorado use lottery revenues to fund open space protection. Nevada voters passed a bond act that will raise nearly $50 million. Nationwide, voters have passed 200 initiatives to protect agricultural land, according to a survey by the American Farmland Trust.
Last year, the state of Maryland adopted a landmark growth management plan, which included a neighborhood revitalization center, a taskforce on “Smart Codes” to encourage rehabilitation and preservation of older buildings, and a job creation tax credit program for businesses locating in designated smart growth areas. These plans built on Maryland’s long tradition of protecting open space. Funded by land transfer fees, the decades-old Program Open Space has protected 189,000 acres since 1969. Two years ago, the state launched the even more ambitious Rural Legacy Program, which earmarks up to $140 million over the next five years for preservation of greenspaces.
“Rural Legacy was a new twist,” explains Grant Dehart, director of Program Open Space. “Even though Maryland had very successful programs to address individual kinds of resources like farming, forests and the Chesapeake Bay shoreline, it didn’t have any programs that put all these pieces into a comprehensive program that tried to protect multiple resources where they exist in the same place.”
What makes land conservation a hurdle, especially in rapidly growing areas such as the Southeast and the West, is that rising property values have made it difficult for people who inherit the land to keep it without selling it off to developers. This has become a major concern in the agricultural community—with large numbers of farmers nearing retirement, vast amounts of agricultural land are about to change hands.
“When someone dies, the heirs often find the land has increased in value so they sell the farm to pay estate taxes,” says Melinda McBride, director of the Puget Sound Farm Trust. Conservation advocates in the Seattle/Tacoma region have reason to worry. In a recent report, American Farmland Trust identified the Puget Sound region as the fifth most threatened area in losing land to sprawl. Seattle’s economic engine shows no signs of stalling, and a new crop of software and Internet millionaires have transformed small farms into mini-estates, flanked by McMansions.
“We’re losing all the qualities that make this such a great part of the country to live in,” says McBride. People now understand that farmland has environmental, as well as agricultural benefits, she says. “The problem is they think we’ve either already saved it or it’s already gone.”
To protect the farm, advocates now realize, the fa
rmer has to be protected. Beyond investments in agricultural infrastructure, one of the most common farm protection strategies is the purchase of development rights, a method that allows farmers to retain title to their land while selling the right to develop it. The Farmland Protection Program, a conservation easements program created by the 1996 Farm Bill, has purchased $230 million in easements, protecting 127,000 acres. Fifteen states now use purchase of development rights to protect farmland.
Local jurisdictions are following suit. Three years ago, residents in Skagit Valley, Washington—which contains some of the most fertile farmland in the country—agreed to a small increase in property taxes to protect the region’s agricultural reserves from encroaching development. Funded by a conservation futures tax, the three-year-old Skagit Valley Farmland Legacy Program has collected about 1,500 acres. “We knew it would start slow,” says Rich Doenges, Legacy’s program director. “But now we have more people applying than we have money.”
Giving up control doesn’t come easy, especially for farmers whose land has been in the family for generations. “I had recommendations from real estate agents and friends not to sell my development rights,” says John Rosen, a Skagit Valley tulip bulb farmer who sold the Farmland Legacy Program the option to 33 acres. “But this is the last remaining productive valley in the Puget Sound. I thought about what I’d want my kids to do and decided to retire it.”
To date, most of the heat from the smart growth movement has been generated outside the Beltway. Because comprehensive planning and growth management take place at the local and county level, the federal piece in containing sprawl remains uncertain, if not unimagined. Through his Livability Agenda, Vice President Al Gore has tried to make sprawl an election issue; Texas Governor George W. Bush, by contrast, has deflected smart growth questions, arguing that sprawl is an issue better left to the states.
What might the national role be? In an era of budget surpluses, advocates argue, the federal government could ante up money for purchase of open space and farmland. Clinton’s Land Legacy Initiative would do just that. Federal transportation budgets, heavily weighted toward road building, could also redirect money toward mass transit projects.
Until then, anti-sprawl forces have demographics on their side. As baby boomers age, it’s obvious that sprawl will become an obstacle for elderly people who can’t drive. Instead, senior citizens will likely gravitate toward transit and pedestrian-oriented developments with doctors’ offices, grocery stores and libraries close by. Growing immigrant populations are also changing housing patterns, as many “New Americans” tend to prefer living in high-density neighborhoods.
Like all paradigm shifts, smart growth won’t come easy. But at the beginning of a new millennium, Americans don’t automatically equate development with progress and expansion with prosperity. Observes Liberty: “As these [growth] conflicts get more coverage, people are starting to wonder if they might want to live in a different kind of place, maybe where they could walk to the local market or to work. That’s reason to be optimistic.”
LINDA BAKER is a freelance writer in Portland, Oregon, which is protected against sprawl by an urban growth boundary.