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Capitol Comment 234 – Urban “Sprawl”: The Nationalization of America’s Neighborhoods

With the announcement of their “Livability Agenda” and “Lands Legacy Initiative,” the Clinton-Gore administration has brought the federal government into the battle over what is euphemistically called “urban sprawl.” The administration claims that its “smart growth” proposals will solve a host of problems such as air pollution, the loss of farmland and open spaces, traffic congestion and even having too little time in the day.

There are several positive steps that Congress could take that would be far more effective at taming unwieldy urban expansion than politically calculated stratagems proposed by the Clinton administration.

The Clinton-Gore smart growth — or more accurately anti-growth — proposals include a number of components, such as government land purchases, public transportation programs, federal funds for regional planning and the creation of more “wilderness” areas. As a political tactic, federal anti-growth proposals feed on public concerns about excessive development and the seemingly hectic pace of modern life. As a practical solution, however, smart growth falls woefully short.

How Much Open Space? Is there really an open-space crisis? While development has proceeded at a rapid pace in certain areas of the country, many Americans do not realize just how much open space really exists. Within the continental United States, only 4.8 percent of the total land area is developed.1 Even if one accepts at face value smart-growthers’ assertion that development is consuming 50 acres per hour, that still amounts to less than 0.02 percent of America’s total acreage per year. The percentage of farmland developed has fallen from 6.2 percent per year during the 1960s to 2.7 percent per year in the 1990s.2 In addition, there are 77 million acres of national parks and more than 104 million acres of land designated as “wilderness,” which means development of any kind is prohibited by law.3 The fact is that the vast majority of North America is not developed. Simply looking out the window of an airplane should be enough to convince even the most ardent anti-growth advocate that the United States is in no danger of becoming a giant strip mall.

A Local Issue. The administration claims that under its growth control plans, the federal government will simply act as a “partner” with state and local governments. Federal funding will be provided to communities that propose development plans acceptable to the administration. However, linking federal dollars to what it defines as acceptable growth would give the Clinton-Gore administration final say over local zoning and land use decisions — a tremendous expansion in government power. This expansion is, of course, totally unnecessary. States and localities have already begun addressing growth concerns — last November there were 240 antisprawl ballot initiatives around the country.4

Paradise Lost? The Clinton administration wants to spend more than $9 billion on its federal growth-control proposals.5 However, this does not represent their true cost to average Americans. People choose to move to the suburbs for a variety of reasons, such as the price of housing, the quality of schools and the desire for larger plots of land. If anti-growth advocates have their way, freedom of choice will be lost. Americans will be crowded into densely packed communities on ever smaller pieces of property. With strict limits on the amount of land open to development, the cost of new homes could skyrocket — ending the dream of homeownership for many Americans. And not only urban residents will suffer. In some areas of the country, the assessed value of an acre of farmland can be as low as $954 while an urbanized acre is valued at $67,135.6 Preventing farmers from developing their land obviously has huge implications for their financial well-being.

Federal growth control policies have everything to do with politics and nothing to do with actually solving problems. Pontificating about the evils of traffic congestion may make a good sound bite, but can the federal government really shave 10 minutes from the daily commute? Far from reducing traffic, forcing people to live in densely populated areas will make congestion worse — even in areas with well developed mass transit systems. Air pollution will also become worse, not better, under federal anti-growth proposals. Densely populated urban areas such as Los Angeles have some of the most polluted air in the country. Far from improving the quality of life, federal anti-growth policies would do just the opposite.

Real Solutions. This is not to suggest that over-development is not a problem in some areas of the country. There are several positive steps that Congress could take that would be far more effective at taming unwieldy urban expansion than politically calculated stratagems proposed by the Clinton administration. The federal death tax should be repealed so landowners do not need to sell property to developers just to meet the tax bill. The Superfund law should be reformed so the cleanup of waste sites in urban areas can be completed quickly and these areas opened for redevelopment. Regulatory barriers that leave so-called “brownfields” languishing should be revamped. Finally, the administration’s “environmental justice” policy, which can have a chilling effect on urban redevelopment, should be scrapped. These steps will help preserve open spaces and provide incentives for Americans to remain in revitalized, livable urban centers.
Clinton-Gore “smart growth” proposals are at best a political ploy, and at worst an attempt to turn the federal government into a nationwide homeowner’s association. Either way, such policies will exacerbate a much greater problem — “government sprawl.”

1Samuel R. Staley, “The Sprawling of America: In Defense of the Dynamic City,” Reason Public Policy Institute, 1999, p. 10.

2Staley, Ibid., p. 16.

3Ross W. Gorte, “Federal Land and Resource Management: A Primer,” Congressional Research Service, 12/22/98.

4Time, 3/22/99.

5Jeffrey A. Zinn, “Conserving Land Resources: The Clinton Administration Initiatives and Legislative Action,” Congressional Research Service, 3/2/99, p. 1-2.

6Staley, Ibid., p. 21.