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Multitude of factors contributes to sprawl

Sprawl is getting a lot of attention these days from newly-elected officials.

In Baton Rouge, La., city-parish Democratic Mayor-President-elect Melvin “Kip” Holden recently told the Baton Rouge Press Club that he intends to come up with a plan to contain urban sprawl. He expects it to be “a very contentious” issue saying, “I can’t sit back and allow it to address itself because we would have uncontrollable growth and increased traffic would put the city virtually in gridlock.”

The incoming governor in New Jersey, Richard J. Codey, pledged to curb sprawl, ensure land conservation and promote urban redevelopment. By the way, Codey is replacing the governor who recently resigned, and will therefore serve only 14 months unless he runs for re-election and wins.
In Montana, the governor-elect told the annual Big Sky/Big Sprawl Conference, “If we don’t plan for the future, the future will come without a plan.” Other speakers at the conferences advocated that new economic development projects be placed in already-developed areas as much as possible.

And in Maryland, incoming Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is planning to sell off large swaths of state land. This is in contrast to the outgoing Gov. Parris N. Glendening’s policy of curbing sprawl through land purchases, reports the Associated Press.

Some in Mississippi have advocated selling off state land as a way to raise revenue. It is not a sprawl issue here, but some cities and states have used the policy of state acquisition of land to buffer the city and the surrounding rural area.

Why the controversy

So, what is sprawl and why is it so controversial? And is the government for or against sprawl? The subject becomes more interesting when one looks at what governments do as well as what politicians say. In any event, it helps to understand the subject of sprawl and what caused it in the first place.

A good place to begin is an article by Mark Miller of the National Center for Policy Analysis entitled “What Causes Sprawl?” It can be found on the Internet at http://www.ncpa.org/pub/ba/ba459/.

Miller points out that urban sprawl “is generally defined as low-density residential and commercial development on previously undeveloped land. Those who oppose sprawl seek to preserve open space by concentrating future construction in already developed areas. Dozens of cities and counties have adopted urban growth boundaries to contain development in existing areas and prevent the spread of urbanization to outlying and rural areas.”

He goes on to say that the increase in demand for housing farther from inner cities is partly due to mistaken government policies. Zoning restrictions, for example, often lead to sprawl by requiring high-density residential construction and large parking lots for businesses. He says that such regulations actually favor sprawl while limiting the choices of homebuyers and business owners.

Miller says that other government policies have also contributed to urban sprawl:

• Many families have fled the cities to take advantage of better-quality suburban schools.

• High property, payroll and business taxes have pushed businesses and workers into suburban areas, where taxes are generally lower.

• High crime rates in inner cities have frightened many residents into leaving for safer suburban communities.

• The tax deduction for interest payments on home mortgages favors homeowners over renters.

• Declining infrastructure has reduced the quality of urban life — with potholes, cracked sidewalks and poorly maintained public parks common.

Moving commuters

To Miller’s list I would add subsidized transportation. Our state transportation departments are usually very good at building roads to move commuters in and out of the downtown areas.

I recall the day in 1973 in Jackson when several downtown streets were changed from two-way to one-way. The purpose of course was to improve the flow of traffic. After that change, it was easier for people to drive into downtown and return to the suburbs each day, leaving a quiet, almost deserted downtown at night.

One business owner who had a men’s clothing store in Capitol Street said that his sales starting going down that day and never stopped. He moved to a new location on the frontage road within a year.

Business, government contributions

There is a lot written about suburban sprawl and that somehow business is responsible for it. Opponents tell us to look at all those big box store and franchise restaurants that all look the same. They have a point.

On the other hand, if we stop and consider Miller’s article and the history of what caused the current state of sprawl, we find that it was government policies, as much as or more than business practices, that contributed to the situation.

Phil Hardwick’s column on Mississippi Business appears regularly in the Mississippi Business Journal. His e-mail address is phil@philhardwick.com.

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