Be Knowledgeable about Growth Issues

Replacing the growth machine with a sustainability ethic

"This book is written for you...
If you are frustrated at seeing unwanted development threaten your community.
If you are sick of seeing your taxes increase to pay for all the services needed by so much 'progress.'
If the high point of your day is seeing a great blue heron wade in a stream or a red fox cross the road.
If you cherish a scenic view of a lake or meadow on your morning walk or evening commute.
If you want to preserve a woodlot, creek or wetland for your children to explore.
If you value darkness so that you can see the night sky.
If you mourn the loss of quiet and solitude.
If you are frustrated by urban sprawl and the traffic, noise and pollution it brings.
If you are angry that out-of-town landowners control the future of your neighborhood.
If you are 'mad as hell' and don't want to take it anymore."
Citizen's Primer for Conservation Activism
Judith Perlman
Reprinted courtesy of University of Texas Press

Bedrock References

Knowledge is power. Indeed, it may be the only power you have. In any case, a modicum of know-how is absolutely necessary to plan your efforts, deal with challenges, and influence others.

For starters, read this relatively short article by Daniel Warner, which appeared in the September, 2006, issue of Environmental Practice. Another short paper is "Growth Management Strategies for Stopping Growth in Local Communities" authored by Gabor Zovanyi and posted on Negative Population Growth's website (www.npg.org). Then purchase these three, short "how-to" manuals which are loaded with extremely useful information and references for the growth-control advocate:

Keynote Topic

The top pro-growth argument that you will have to answer is that growth is required to sustain our (and your) economic well-being. Fortunately, this argument is a hoax. Unfortunately, because this principle-of-faith is part of America's folklore, you will have to convince people repeatedly of its falsity. Stennet's book addresses this issue, as does the following:

Bookmark These

Additional information is available on and through the following resources:

Focus on Sustainability

For More Depth

More academic but still excellent publications relevant to growth control include:

Diminishing Quality-of-Life and Higher Taxes

Both Eben Fodor's and Ed Stennett's books talk about how growth and development lower the quality-of-life in communities. More traffic congestion, more crowded schools, more crime, more pollution, less green and open space - the list goes on.

Lowering our quality-of-life would be bad enough, but growth and development also increase taxes. Eben Fodor's book, Better, not Bigger, contains a great deal of information on this subject. Mr. Fodor also offers a free Excel-based "Community Impact Model" to estimate the fiscal impacts of any proposed land development (www.fodorandassociates.com/CIM.htm).

One of the drivers behind higher taxes is that crime rates go up with increasing population density (www.fbi.gov/ucr/cius_02/html/web/crimefactors.html). With increasing population density, neighbors don't know and don't want to know each other; residents deny personal responsibility for their community and its problems; and some, feeling unnoticed, sense that they can get away with criminal behavior.

The need for public recreation services also increases substantially with growth. Before development, children have ample opportunities for outdoor recreation provided at no cost by clean streams, swimming holes, woods and fields. Much of this recreation is educational, non-competitive (e.g., climbing trees, playing catch, hiking) and provides excellent physical exercise (www.thefuturesedge.com). But when land is consumed for development and these activities are no longer options, communities build manmade recreation facilities for youth. The result? - large sportsplexes, indoor hockey rinks and swimming pools, etc. - all of which are extremely expensive. The irony of these taxpayer-funded, recreation monuments to growth is that they become underutilized as children spend more time at home watching television, playing computer games and chatting on-line.

The frustrating irony in this double hit of lower quality-of-life and higher taxes is that the Growth Machine frequently tries to justify growth on the basis that the new residents will increase the tax base. Well, so what?! The additional taxes are needed to pay for services that these new residents would require. Further, growth should instead be based on its contribution to the well-being of both the present community and its new members. To base growth on the ability to "milk" new residents for tax revenue is divisive, undemocratic and unhealthy for any community.

Economic Freeloaders

In a desirable community where real estate prices are high, developers garner huge profits from residential development. These extraordinary returns arise from the community's previous infrastructure and brand name, both of which result from taxes paid by previous residents for many years. It is economically inefficient for one constituent (developers) to reap benefits while another constituent (previous residents) absorbs the costs associated with those benefits. A growing example of this mismatch in costs vs. benefits are high-rise developments or "building up". Because of the sheer number of housing units in high-rise developments, the developer will enjoy very large profits but will have contributed little, if anything, to the local community infrastructure that made that neighborhood attractive to buyers. In other words, taxpayers do not reap their fair share of the returns.

Sock-It-To-Ya Subsidies

Public financing of economic development is appropriate in limited situations - such as when the development will bring-in new, family-wage jobs to residents and the land would not otherwise be developed (www.goodjobsfirst.org).

Despite claims to the contrary, many governments rarely subsidize growth. And for good reasons - subsidies are often wasteful, corporate welfare. They are socialism for the few and the wealthy, who usually do not even live in the community. Further, a development subsidy gives the impression that the community is not an attractive spot for prospective residents.

Unfortunately, too many governments still needlessly subsidize the Growth Machine; and the worst examples are subsidies for "upscale" residential development. Proponents for subsidies may claim that the jurisdiction had subsidized development in the past. But developers do not need subsidies today because of the very high prices that developed properties command. Also, well-run development companies have much more sophisticated business management expertise today than developers in the past.

Subsidies to the Growth Machine are difficult to eliminate because of a phenomenon economists term "rational behavior." What this means is that the costs of growth and development are spread over a large number of individuals. Consequently, the citizenry who pay these costs (in the case of growth - lower quality-of-life and higher taxes) are not particularly motivated to oppose the Growth Machine. In contrast, the few individuals who constitute the Growth Machine are strongly motivated to make growth and development happen because of the huge returns they will enjoy. Rational behavior is the political dynamic underlying most government subsidies.

Governments can avoid wasteful subsidies to the Growth Machine by applying time-tested, tried-and-true, economic principles for the efficient use of resources:

Rather than being subsidized, developers should pay impact fees to cover the cost of providing new infrastructure for public services (schools, roads, recreation facilities, etc.). Detailed information about how government finances its subsidies for growth is here.

Gulping Down our Water

Development and sprawl are creating regional water shortages across the country (www.smartgrowthamerica.com/waterandsprawl.html). Further, shortages of potable water are expected to worsen with global warming. Search the web under "water shortage" to access information about water shortages in your state.

The False Promise of High-Density Development

In communities where citizens demand less sprawl, the Growth Machine recasts the debate by advocating for high-density, rather than sprawling, development. Although large complexes of apartments, condos and/or townhouses yield lower per-unit prices than do sprawling developments of detached, single-family homes, developers make huge profits in high-density development because of the sheer volume of units involved.

Given the choice, most families eschew high-density housing for good reasons. Such communities are often plagued by over-crowded schools, paralyzing traffic, apathetic citizens and high rates of crime. In The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, Malcolm Gladwell talks about how communities that grow above some relatively small number (Gladwell thinks it's 150) lose their cohesiveness. At some point, neighbors don't know and don't want to know each other; residents deny personal responsibility for their community and its problems; and some, feeling unnoticed, sense that they can get away with criminal behavior.

It is commonly agreed that high-rise apartment and condominium buildings are not healthy environments for children. In spite of this, many "smart growth" advocates want to cram people into high-rise housing near mass-transit centers, even in suburban communities. But since children are not going to live in these towers, that must mean that pro-growth advocates envision a 2-tiered society that has many more childless adults and relatively fewer families. We disagree. We believe that a society where every adult is encouraged to experience the joys (and challenges) of parenthood is a healthier, wiser and more humane society that is much more inclined to choose what is in the best interest of future generations.

Developers and planners (who benefit from development) claim that building new cities of high-density residential buildings near mass transit is good for the environment. This claim could not be further from the truth. The "new urbanism" still generates more automobile trips, uses more water and generates more waste. Automobile miles are better minimized if employers that pay family-wage jobs were located near mass transit stations outside the city. That way, people who like the big-city life can live downtown and take the subway or train to work. That way, mass transit energy usage would be minimized because train usage would be maximized in both incoming and outgoing directions. That way, people who already live in the communities near transit stations outside the downtown would have more employment opportunities and better job security. And all residents could more easily walk or bike to work. That way, suburban communities near mass transit can minimize taxes and maximize services for residents (since office, laboratory and manufacturing developments more than pay their way). That way, the big city can remain a big city and outlying communities can remain high-quality-of-life, family-oriented places. In short, while a lower density community may be self-sustaining, high density communities are always unsustainable.

Higher densities typically lead to ever-larger schools. But studies indicate that student achievement drops and that the gap between poor and affluent students widens in larger schools. Further, more discipline problems, lower attendance and higher dropout rates are found in larger schools (www.smallschoolsproject.org). Often, government bodies approve high density developments without ensuring that there are adequate school facilities to accommodate the growth in student population. Education is a messy afterthought that is left to the Board of Education.

Urbanization results in less greenspace. And scientific research has shown that less trees or lower levels of greenspace lead to:

The website for the Human-Environment Research Laboratory www.herl.uiuc.edu at the University of Illinois is a good portal to the psychological and social benefits of more trees and greenspace in our communities.

In communities where housing is expensive, developers extract very lucrative 'density expansion' deals from local government officials. These transactions provide more housing to moderate-income families in exchange for higher density. However, government authorities frequently accept one-sided arrangements from developers that provide relatively little value to moderate-income families (www.marylandtaxeducation.org).

Because higher density increases the demand for public services, such as police protection and schools, high-density development often increases everyone's real estate taxes. Given all the problems associated with high-density areas, it is no wonder that some parents endure 2+ hour commutes so that their families can live with some elbow room and greenspace. High density development, if it must go somewhere, belongs only in the inner city where the vast majority of citizens embrace an ultra-urban lifestyle. High density development does NOT belong in a suburban or rural community.

Smart Growth

Many consider "smart growth" an oxymoron because it accommodates growth, which is ultimately unsustainable. And many developers call their plans "smart growth" when in fact their schemes are anything but.

A common justification for smart growth is to move people near mass transit; but true smart growth would instead encourage people to live within walking or biking distance of their jobs. For suburban communities, it makes far more sense to place family-wage jobs near mass transit centers. That way, people who enjoy high-density living could live downtown in an existing, high-density urban center and commute out to jobs in the suburbs. And the suburban community could both offer high-quality employment opportunities to residents, and, at the same time, reap the benefits of an expanded business tax base.

Frequently, the Growth Machine politically partners with urban and rural "environmental" groups to secure government approval and even subsidies for "smart growth" in suburban communities. Tranfer development rights (TDR) are often the legal tools used for this purpose. Through this appalling alliance, urban "environmentalists" force their high-density, urban living on suburban residents, rural "environmentalists" secure subsidies (paid for by suburban taxpayers) to preserve their communities, the Growth Machine makes a killing, and the suburban community is robbed of its quality-of-life.

In spite of the many misuses and downsides of smart growth, some useful information can be gleaned from the following smart-growth websites:

Creating worthy places for our great, great grandchildren

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