Managing the Hidden Costs of Sprawl

Submitted by Ed Morrison on Fri, 02/16/2007 - 10:13.

The substance of this post appears as a comment on Brewed Fresh Daily.

Northeast Ohio is not dealing well with sprawl. A large part of the challenge comes in reconciling different perspectives on a complex issue.

For seven years I struggled with drafting and implementing the development code for one of the fastest-growing county's (parishes) in Louisiana. This experience taught me that solutions lie at the intersection of perceptions. FInding these intersections is tricky. First you need a stable, reliable civic process that can safely house the exploration. You also need a flexible, clear and fair legal framework to outline options and encourage -- through incentives and penalties -- agreeements. A good development code provides a framework within which these discussions and agreements can take place.

One of the biggest challenges we face is this: the legal structure underlying land use of this country is antiquated. As Hunter points out in his Meet the Bloggers interview , original zoning codes focused on public health issues. The idea was to spread things out and to create single use districts in order to protect the public health.

Long ago, the original rationale for single use zoning faded. In general, our zoning ordinances have not adjusted well to our changing economy. As outlying communities have developed, the habit is to replicate older zoning ordinances originally developed for early 21st century industrial cities.

As development uses became more varied and complex, the solution was simply to add more single use districts. When that approach could not work well, communities began adding overly districts (to, for example, protect historic districts) and planned unit development districts (to accommodate more flexible uses).

These adjustments are minor and at the margin. It is not uncommon now to go into a largely rural county and find a zoning ordinance with over twenty single use districts. The county has simply borrowed a zoning ordinance from somewhere else and made minor modifications. (They rarely consider that they do not have the staff, in many cases, to administer complex ordinances. This is a game developers always win.)

In my view, a lot of the problem lays at the doorstep of the legal profession, which is devoted to a few resources to providing model statutes for states and model ordinances for local governments. Obviously, there is not much money in writing planning statutes and zoning ordinances. Some years ago, the American Planning Association stepped in to fill the void at the state level.

There's no question that sprawl imposes costs that are not borne by either the developer or the homeowner. Some of the earliest work on the hidden costs of sprawl came out from Robert Burchell of Rutgers University.

While sprawl arises from the relentless pressure of people looking for qualities of suburban and rural life they cannot find in the city, sprawl creates a classic market failure: People are not paying the true costs of what they are getting.

Because of the way in which the zoning has evolved in this country, we have no easy way to internalize these external costs. The most common local response in high growth counties is impact fees. This strategy recognizes of fundamental fact of life: residential development does not pay for itself.

In rare cases -- Oregon and Maryland come the mind -- state planning statutes are updated to provide for much stronger local control of development patterns. Advocates of smart growth like that point to these two states as examples of what we should be doing. Politically, however, few states have the option of passing such sweeping land use reform.

In his Meet the Bloggers interview , Hunter proposes a middle course.

He suggests that we begin using computer simulations to raise the question about while we want Northeast Ohio to look like as we develop. As a region we're not having this conversation. The metropolitan planning organizations the drive many transportation and land use decisions are not set up to discuss broader regional development patterns. We could, however, anchor this regional conversation in our colleges and universities.

In Pennsylvania, a group of foundations got together and hired Brookings examine the impact of no growth sprawl. This report touched off an important and on-going debate about how Pennsylvania should develop.

Like Pennsylvania, Ohio faces the same challenge of fragmented local government. The underlying structure of local government places heavy burden on state and local taxpayers. It becomes easy for the business community to complain about higher taxes, but these protestations have little impact. After almost a generation of Republican statehouse rule, Ohio has more local government employees per capita.

The solutions to this challenge are deeper and more profound.

We need to find new ways of collaborating across political boundaries. We are beginning to make some progress in this direction, but our progress is altogether too slow.

The no growth, sprawl development pattern continues. As Myron Orfield has pointed out, these development patterns that lead to a hollowing out of our cities also lead to political polarization and gridlock at the state level.

The irony, of course, is that the dream people chase by moving to the suburbs eventually fades. Open spaces are lost to yet another subdivision. Rural infrastructures are taxed beyond their limits. Schools become crowded. And emergency services are slower and in some cases less reliable. People with new $300,000 houses find raw sewage flowing in their backyard culvert after a rain. In sum, the zoning ordinances are not adequate to protect what we value.

It will be interesting to see whether the Voices and Choices process will offer practical solutions to these regional challenges.

In the end, Northeast Ohio needs a new development framework that raises these important questions and structures a stable exploration of alternative development scenarios. It will not take much to start.

For one-tenth the money the foundations invested in Voices and Choices, they could underwrite a promising exploration of new regional directions.

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