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Smart Growth Response

Smart growth isn’t. Its advocates generally prefer little or no growth, and it often is anything but smart.

Instead of promoting social equity, smart-growth policies can frustrate the aspirations of disadvantaged families for upward mobility and even prevent them from maintaining current living standards.

For example, Maryland’s Prince George’s County, although perhaps the country’s most affluent majority African American jurisdiction, also has its share of poverty. A recent report by a commission dominated by smart growth advocates recommended that the county push most development into poorer, more densely-populated areas adjacent to Washington, D.C. Only modest growth would be permitted in a middle ring of established suburbs. Little, if any, growth would be permitted in rural areas of the county.

The effect of these policies on the working poor would be devastating. Many of are newer residents who were able to afford to buy their own homes on small lots in the county’s inner ring. Some are elderly couples who have lived there for decades. Others are renting single-family homes or garden apartments. There are few high-rises. As development and redevelopment are channeled into these areas, property taxes will rise along with property values. Current residents will be forced out, their homes replaced by higher-rising and higher-priced structures—the classic gentrification scenario.

However, with urban gentrification, at least some displaced residents have the option of moving to the inner suburbs. With smart growth, where will the poor suburbanites go? Many will be unable to move up to the more expensive homes in the middle ring and will have to return to the inner city from which they so recently escaped. Is this social equity?

There needs to be room for an orderly progression from poverty to affluence. Smart growth policies interfere with the ability of poor, often minority families to make these incremental improvements in their lives.

In the rural outer ring, small family farms may no longer be profitable. Without smart growth, the farmer can sell the land at its fair market value for a more lucrative purpose. With smart growth, it will be difficult to find a buyer, and any sales price will be artificially lower, reflecting the restrictions on its use and onward salability. Is it social equity to make the farmer bear the burden of maintaining open space for others to enjoy as they pass by?

Another stated goal of smart growth is environmental protection. However, it can just as easily be used to frustrate local attempts to protect the environment. In the early 1970s the Congress tried but failed to enact a smart growth precursor, which, inter alia, would have required states to preempt local decision making that would restrict development of “projects of regional concern.” This was as environmentally unsound as it was anti-home rule. Local jurisdictions should reject efforts to entice them to give up local land use power. Otherwise, smart growth becomes just another pretext for centralization of regional decision making?

Smart growth tries to channel investment to locations other than those dictated by the market. If these locations were economically attractive, smart growth legislation would be unnecessary. Given equal risk, most developers invest where they will earn the highest rate of return. This is socially desirable; it creates more wealth, more jobs, and more tax revenue. Faced with smart growth, developers may look elsewhere for higher return rates, taking jobs and the tax base with them. If all jurisdictions in a region have the same restrictions, lower returns may have to be accepted, resulting in a poorer and less efficient economy.

If smart growth isn’t so smart, and assuming that suburban sprawl is undesirable, the tools already exist to reduce that sprawl and vindicate concerns about the environment, the economy, and social equity. Among others, master plans can predict where the market will lead investment decisions so that infrastructure can grow with demand. Zoning can be used to separate incompatible land uses and to provide for a panoply of different parcel sizes in different areas. Mixed-use development can be permitted for Main Street-type projects. New towns, such as Columbia, Md., and Reston, Va., can be encouraged where farms are no longer profitable. Flexibility and the willingness to change past decisions when they don’t work are crucial.

Growth seems to occur naturally along transportation corridors, whether the transportation is the private automobile, a public bus, a train, light rail, or intermodal. We can plan for this growth along existing corridors and plan for transportation along new corridors suggested by the marketplace—or we can put our collective head in the sand and try to repeal human nature and the laws of economics.

If it really is necessary to oppose the natural market for development, states and municipalities should put their money where their mouth is. Instead of the stick of smart growth, the carrot of incentives, such as tax breaks and redevelopment bonds, can be used judiciously to subsidize lower rates of return for those who are willing to invest in politically desired areas.

The greatest source of sprawl may be the separation of jobs from residences—the commuter syndrome. Smart growth advocates concentrate on forcing more intense development closer to existing employment centers. Too little attention is paid to efforts to encourage job growth closer to where people want to live. This should be an important component of any anti-sprawl strategy. In addition to siting job-producing projects in the suburbs, telecommuting sites can be established to make it easy for distant employers, including the federal government, to accept such arrangements.

Perhaps, however, sprawl is not the real problem, and neither is the environment, the economy, or social justice. Perhaps smart growth is just another form of NIMBY on the part of affluent exurbanites who fear the encroachment of those they left behind on their flight from the city.

—By David L. Cahn, JD ’87

Cahn is a federal government attorney who resides in Upper Marlboro, Md. He provided this Viewpoint in response to the Smart Growth feature article in the January 2001 issue of GW Law School magazine.

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