Wrong Diagnosis Underlies Post's Pessimism on Smart Growth
[An article printed in
The Montgomery County Seirran, October-November 2004.
Reprinted from GroundSwell, May-June 2005]
We would be amused if Martian observers, seeing people with
crutches, concluded that crutches had crippled these folks. Analysts
cited in the Washington Post's recent series on sprawl are not from
Mars, but many confused the crutches localities fall back upon as
the cause of our region's crippling growth pattern.
Montgomery and other counties around the District of Columbia are
blamed in Post writer Peter Whoriskey's articles for pushing
residential growth to the Eastern Shore and West Virginia by
inviting job growth while curtailing home construction. These
policies do accelerate sprawl but they are crutches. Counties like
Montgomery and Fairfax use these crutches to defend against severe
fiscal burdens of upgrading infrastructure to serve their residents
who fled the region's core or who avoided settling there. People who
chose to reside in the lower-tax and lower-housing-cost counties
support these crutches when they sense that these advantages are in
The Post paints a seemingly hopeless picture because it fails to
recognize the real engines of sprawl - high land values, land
speculation, and subsidies for development on greenfield sites.
Wasteful scattershot development will continue to defeat Smart
Growth until officials and voters confront these matters.
High Land Values and Speculation.
High land values stem from: 1) regional population growth, 2)
public works like roads and schools, 3) special natural features
like waterfronts, and 4) the totality of private and public
activities that make our area productive and attractive to those who
live, work, and visit here. For example, a 1980 Congressional study
found that Metro, still unfinished, had already generated $2 billion
in new land values. The study found that "the biggest share of
these new values is going to people lucky enough to own land within
easy access of Metro stations," not to all taxpayers via
governmental units that financed Metro or to the subway authority.
Sprawl starts at the center of the metropolis and radiates
outward. Smith owns a vacant site in downtown D.C. If he builds
offices, housing or a mixed use building, he invites risks,
headaches, and sizeable property tax increases, so he keeps his site
idle or in minimal use like a parking lot. Brown, seeing the
productive potential of Smith's location, offers to buy it. Yet
Smith who is getting something for nothing - his rising land values
- asks for a price so high that Brown's venture can't fly. Brown
approaches owners of other first-class sites, meets the same hurdle,
and finally buys a less ideal second-class site he can afford. More
"Browns" do the same.
By the time Jones and other enterprisers come along, owners of
second- and third-class sites have also boosted their lot prices.
Owners get away with this because "land hoarding" in the
core creates an artificial scarcity of affordable sites. Many "Joneses"
are driven farther into the hinterland. Developers who invade open
space in a sense are "refugees," denied entry by inflated
land prices from close-in sites better suited for their ventures.
This unending race to beat speculators to cheap land expands
leapfrog growth patterns over increasingly large areas.
The amount of potential infill sites in D.C. withheld by
speculation was seen in the count of over 11,000 vacant lots and
7,000 boarded-up housing units several years ago. The District is
far from unique. One-quarter of all privately-owned land in the
nation's 100 largest central cities was vacant two decades ago, a "Compact
Cities" study by Congress revealed.
Federal and state spending on misplaced highways, utilities,
schools, and the like subsidize premature urbanization of outlying
areas, magnifying chaotic growth. Tax abatements for malls in the
middle of nowhere lay waste to cornfields and forests, sapping the
vitality of older communities, especially the heart of the
The Post quoted sprawl defenders who typically and incorrectly
call the mini-ranch the epitome of the American dream. If
affordable, many families would choose reasonably compact walkable
neighborhoods with charm, amenities, variety, and mixed uses. People
in our region pay premiums to live in places like Capital Hill,
Alexandria's Old Town, Leesburg, Ellicott City, and Georgetown.
Increasingly popular are New Community Design (NCD) and the New
Urbanism - which are not new, but a rediscovery of the virtues of
old American cities and towns. A 2001 nationwide survey by the
National Association of Realtors found that 60 percent of the sample
favored smaller lots to save open space, 77 percent wanted
neighborhoods close to town squares, 86 percent wanted trails and
bike paths. Remarkable findings these, considering the barrage of
pro-sprawl propaganda over the past half century.
As inflated land costs (and perceptions about crime and schools)
drive middle income families far from choice central neighborhoods,
their new localities must duplicate the police, water systems, and
schools left behind, plus roads to get back to work places, shops,
restaurants, and theaters. High taxes required to construct and
maintain our over-extended public facilities and services encourage
new home seekers to go even farther afield.
It is easy to blame land speculators. But the real culprits are
the upside-down property tax incentives, inappropriate
infrastructure investments, and land-use policies that spur
speculation. These incentives make it profitable to keep prime
locations in cold storage, to board up rental housing, and to block
the path of normal growth in appropriate city and town centers.
Taking the Profit Out of Sprawl
The challenge is to take the profit out of sprawl so the massive
inventory of skipped-over prime locations, cited above, can be put
to optimal use. Jurisdictions can deflate high land and housing
costs by altering current taxes that favor land holding rather than
land using. Then the counties' crutches, short-term palliatives at
best, can be discarded. Only then can Smart Growth proceed, saving
both our countryside and our communities.