In our running debate about residential development and growth, I often hear the argument “growth is good.” And yet, if you were to ask any group of Pennsylvanians, Marylanders or Virginians if they wanted 100 million people living in their state, they would say, “No, are you nuts?”
With that response we have admitted that there are limits to growth. We know that somewhere between where we are now and 100 million people, there is a line we should not cross. A point where enough is enough.
Once we admit that we cannot simply keep growing forever, how can we not ask ourselves this question: “Isn’t it now our obligation to immediately begin planning for a sustainable region?”
If we admit that there are limits to growth, then “growth is good” has about the same merit as “cigarettes don’t cause cancer” and “global warming is a myth.” It is an assertion that ignores the evidence and prevents and delays the development of public policies that, if enacted in time, might not only protect the next generations’ health, but also save them untold billions in public costs to mitigate the creeping disaster that is our present growth reality.
At the regional, state and local levels our present growth scenario is created by our transportation systems and our rezoning practices, both of which force development outward from urban and small town centers. We could just as easily use our transportation policies and zoning practices to channel growth inward. If we did, we could sustain a larger community than the one we are evolving now, which some would argue is already unsustainable.
While this sounds simple, it is not. Elected officials receive more campaign contributions and more political pressure from those who profit from sprawl development than from those who support sustainability. This pressure takes its most virulent form when it corrupts our political process.
There is little wonder that developers favor sprawl development, when one considers how it works. Take agricultural land worth, say, $5,000 an acre for agricultural purposes for which it is now being used and the county government then rezones it for, say, a one house per acre subdivision. The value suddenly jumps to more than $55,000 an acre. Where did that value come from?
It did not come from any innovation or labor on the part of the developer or the landowner. The value comes from an implied contract made by our government representatives between the rest of us taxpayers and the future homeowners in that subdivision. We have agreed to educate their children, protect them from crime and fire, plow snow off their roads, build and expand roads to accommodate them, provide them with parks and libraries, and on and on. Yet the money from that $50,000 jump in value does not go to us, the taxpayers, it is a windfall, unearned profit for the developer/landowner. It is developer welfare.
The irony is that we could probably sustain more growth if we were to pursue more sustainable development practices.
If we channeled our growth inward and upward, those developers who were willing to reinvest in deteriorating neighborhoods would profit. However, they would only be willing to redevelop urban land if they knew that their competitors would be denied the opportunity to profit by developing farmland and forests at the outer edges of our communities.
We should reward developers who buy and use land for the purpose for which it is zoned. A measure before the Maryland General Assembly illustrates this idea. The measure proposes a “green fee” that would tax impervious surfaces, such as roofs and paving, outside of Maryland’s designated growth areas eight times more than impervious surface within the growth zones. (Revenue from the fee would be used to prevent runoff pollution from urban and agricultural areas).
While we plan these communities where infrastructure already exists and where people could live closer to work, we also could plan for communities where the environmental and economic benefits are just the beginning of what we could gain.
We can develop communities that will help to bind us together, communities that will help to heal our perceived differences.
We can create more economically heterogeneous places (small towns within big places), places where some of the people can walk to school, some of the people can walk to work, some of the people can walk to some of their shopping and there is a place where everyone knows your name.
But we can realize that vision only if we admit that enough is enough.
Distributed by the Bay Journal News Service