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Capitol Comment

    Capitol Comment 257 - Smart Growth? Not in My Backyard

    10/28/1999

    As the vilification of "urban sprawl" reaches ever-louder decibels, "smart growth" has been held out as the answer to concerns about our quality of life. Smart growth, though not clearly defined even by its supporters, generally consists of several proposals: "in-fill," which means channeling growth towards existing urban areas, "clustered" development, in which tightly grouped homes are surrounded by large areas of open space, greatly expanded commuter rail systems, and high density development.

    As the vilification of "urban sprawl" reaches ever-louder decibels, "smart growth" has been held out as the answer to concerns about our quality of life. Smart growth, though not clearly defined even by its supporters, generally consists of several proposals: "in-fill," which means channeling growth towards existing urban areas, "clustered" development, in which tightly grouped homes are surrounded by large areas of open space, greatly expanded commuter rail systems, and high density development. Smart growthers promise that through the implementation of these proposals, we can achieve a communal utopia with safe streets, good schools, short commutes, polite neighbors, and lots of open space within compact urban growth boundaries.

    As many people face the reality of what smart growth actually means, they are deciding that it may not be so smart after all.

    However, the application of smart growth is running into difficulty throughout the country. As the reality of smart growth — denser communities, smaller homes, and greater reliance upon public transportation — becomes more apparent, many Americans are deciding that they don’t want "smart growth" in their own backyard.

    In-fill Is Out. One of the smart growther’s favorite proposals is "in-fill" of existing urban areas. In theory, this should mean less suburban expansion as development is targeted away from rural areas. One of the prime examples of this theory being put into practice is the "Eastward Ho!" initiative in Southern Florida. According to a report by the Clinton-Gore administration: "The initiative seeks to encourage the revitalization of coastal communities by targeting quality in-fill development in areas that have been underutilized or allowed to deteriorate."1

    There is just one problem: many of the communities targeted for this in-fill do not want it. According to Jeffrey Mishcon, the mayor of North Miami Beach: "We do not want to accommodate any additional people in the city of North Miami Beach…It will just lead to more traffic, more overcrowded schools, and all the things chipping away at our quality of life."2 Ironically, these are the very problems smart growth is supposed to solve. Surfside mayor Paul Novak adds: "We must be careful we’re not being victimized in a scheme of overdevelopment that is cloaked as an environmental protection plan." Other communities such as Boca Raton, Fort Lauderdale, Pinecrest, and Palm Beach Gardens have expressed similar concerns about in-fill.

    Ditching Density. Smart growthers also advocate "density," which simply means packing more people into a given area. The Sierra Club writes that "[W]hen more people understand the true costs of the status quo and they are presented with attractive alternatives, they prefer denser developments."3

    Contrary to the Sierra Club’s prediction, people in Manheim Township, Pennsylvania, decided that their community was dense enough. A builder recently proposed to construct 25 high-density townhouses in Manheim. The development was within the township’s urban growth boundary, and conformed with their comprehensive land use plan. But the project was killed by local residents, who considered the area dense enough already. As the builder noted: "People want to have their cake and eat it too…They want to preserve farmland, but they don’t want to increase densities in existing urban growth boundaries."4 Apparently, not all people "prefer denser developments."

    Clustered Development? Not Here. Another strategy of the smart growthers is "clustering." According to the Sierra Club: "Clustering allows the same number of lots on a given parcel of land, but requires that they be clustered on one portion of the parcel. Sensitive areas, buffers, and open space are situated on the remaining land."5 A Snohomish County, Washington, builder found that this lofty prose does not translate into action on the ground. He proposed a "rural cluster subdivision" of 22 homes gathered close together with lots of open space around them. The project was stopped in its tracks by nearby residents, who argued that septic tanks from the homes would have to be grouped so close together that they would pollute the aquifer and their wells.6 The Sierra Club has yet to come to the project’s defense.

    Mass Transit? No Thank You. Atlanta, Georgia, is often held up as the epitome of sprawl, with snarled traffic, rapidly expanding suburbs, and problems with air quality. Here, if anywhere, the favorite proposal of smart growthers — commuter rail — should find widespread acceptance. Yet metro Atlanta residents simply do not think rail projects are worth the cost. Only one-third of those living in counties not presently served by MARTA (Atlanta’s commuter rail system) would be willing to pay an extra sales tax of $200 per year to expand MARTA to their community. A whopping 58 percent said they did not think expansion of MARTA was worth the cost.7 Evidently, the overwhelming majority of Atlanta’s citizens have concluded that dealing with traffic, though frustrating, is decidedly superior to expensive commuter rail projects that will do nothing to ease congestion.

    A False Utopia. Despite its alleged benefits, the application of "smart growth" is running into resistance on the ground. Perhaps this is because smart growthers are more concerned with forcing people out of their cars and off the land than they are with improving quality of life. As many people face the reality of what smart growth actually means — tightly packed communities, more and more homes wedged into smaller and smaller lots, forced reliance on mass transit — they are deciding that it may not be so smart after all.

    1"Building Livable Communities: A Report From the Clinton-Gore Administration," June 1999.

    2Miami Daily Business Review, 7/16/99.

    3"Stopping Sprawl," The Planet, April 1997, Vol. 4, number 3.

    4Associated Press, 6/14/99.

    5"Sprawl Solutions," Sierra Club Web site, 9/30/99, (www.sierraclub.org/transportation/sprawl/Sprawl_reports/ solutions.html).

    6"Pollution Threat Halts Builders Proposal, The Herald, 9/14/99.

    7The Atlanta Journal and Constitution, 6/28/99.