Drive through Loudoun County, Va., 40 miles west of Washington, and you'll see the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains, rolling green hills, and the waves of rooftops belonging to the thousands of homes built annually in the county. The second-fastest growing county in the nation, according to the most recent U.S. Census numbers, Loudoun's population increased 12.6 percent between 2000 and 2001, to 190,903 people.
That's nothing compared with the change in the half-pastoral, half-commuter suburb between 1990 and 2000, when the county's population shot up by 96.8 percent. The number of owner-occupied homes more than doubled. So did the counts of school-age children.
The pressure is showing. In 2001, county supervisors, many of whom were elected two years prior on anti-sprawl platforms, approved strict plans to control growth. But the issue still thrives. Debates about roads and development have turned nasty. Farmers in the formerly rural county find themselves under increasing financial pressure to sell their land.
Such growing pains aren't restricted to Loudoun. Localities are struggling with growth challenges all over the country. According to a 2000 study done by the Pew Center for Civic Journalism, 18 percent of respondents considered development, sprawl, traffic, and roads to be the most pressing problem facing their community--a priority they ranked equal to crime and violence. Their election ballots reflected those concerns: Voters encountered more than 550 growth-related initiatives during the 2000 elections.
But while growth may be a local issue, it's one with global consequences, as our appetite for an ever larger suburban home with a yard consumes an ever greater and arguably unsustainable amount of land and resources, both natural and financial. From 1982 to 1997, while the U.S. population grew only 17 percent, the amount of urbanized land increased 47 percent, according to a 2001 report by the Center on Urban and Metropolitan Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington. Density declined accordingly, from 5.0 persons per urbanized acre of land in 1982 to 4.2 persons per urbanized acre in 1997, reflecting the quicker pace of development in the 1990s vs. the 1980s.
"In most of the country, [housing consists] of large-lot residential subdivisions of one home per acre. That kind of sprawl consumes an enormous amount of land and accommodates few people," says William Fulton, president of the Solimar Research Group in Ventura, Calif., which has done research with Brookings' Center on Urban and Metropolitan Policy. "Directly, it consumes resources like land and fuel--[think of the gas people use] just to live their daily lives. Indirectly, think of what it requires to build and maintain that enormous infrastructure."
The bill for unchecked growth can be added up a million ways. Water quality and air quality suffer--fast-growth areas tend to have higher ozone levels, according to a 2002 report by Smart Growth America, a Washington-based coalition of national and local organizations concerned about development.
Precious time is lost. Traffic congestion cost the country $67.5 billion in 2000, including time delays and wasted gas, says the Texas Transportation Institute in its most recent study.
Farmland disappears. Greenfield development, both residential and commercial, absorbed more than 3.2 million acres of prime farmland--an annual loss of 645,000 acres--between 1992 and 1997, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Resources Inventory.
Open space is replaced by golf space, as 48 percent of golf course construction is done in conjunction with residential development. And fragile species have found themselves more and more at risk as their habitat hot spots coincide with areas most likely to be developed: Nevada, California, and Florida, thanks to the population shift toward the coasts.
The conflict doesn't stem solely from the amount of development in those areas; the location of it matters too. In an ironic twist for the housing industry, research has shown that the land with the most biodiversity--places such as San Francisco County, Calif.--also tends to be some of the most valuable real estate in the country, according to University of Minnesota applied economics researcher Stephen Polasky.
There are economic consequences as well. In his book American Metropolitics: The New Suburban Reality, Minnesota state legislator Myron Orfield argues that the true cost of sprawl lies not in its effects on the environment, but in the economic disparities it creates and perpetuates. Local governments, dependent on property taxes for nearly three-quarters of their revenue, rely on land management as the "main tool for keeping [overall] taxes low and the quality of services high," Orfield says. That approach favors low-density, high-priced housing development with significant property taxes and relatively low school demands.
The problem is, few localities succeed in that quest, instead trapping themselves into a cycle of fiscal stress and sprawl, as they look to development to solve the very financial challenges it is creating--challenges Orfield believes could be solved by regional planning rather than local NIMBYism (see "Big Thinker"). "There's this view that the suburbs are fiscally sustainable all by themselves," he says. "[But] most of the bedroom-developing suburbs don't have the resources to sustain their institutions."
In the end, unmanaged growth creates an unsustainable situation for builders themselves, as land becomes increasingly expensive ($350,000 per acre for townhouse-zoned land in Montgomery County, Md., for example) and incredibly hard to come by. Entitlements take twice as long as they used to, thanks to public protests and increasingly complex development issues.
Land trusts, responding to public concern about threatened properties, protect land from development--6.2 million acres as of 2000's end, a 226 percent increase since 1990, according to the Washington-based Land Trust Alliance. In California, builders who plan to build homes on properties with endangered species habitats must typically purchase mitigation land at high ratios (2-to-1 or 3-to-1) to compensate for the lost habitat.
In the Bay area, "the competition for land is becoming fierce" as developers seek both developable land and mitigation parcels, says David Moser, a San Francisco environmental attorney who's represented Shea Homes and other builders. "In some cases, the land is more valuable for mitigation than for development."
No easy solution
Unfortunately for those who want easy solutions--growth moratoriums everywhere, high-rise condominiums for everyone, or carte blanche to build housing anywhere and anytime--there are few. "Sprawl sells," says Patricia Salkin, a land-use lawyer and associate dean at Albany Law School in Albany, N.Y. "If there was no market for the housing, the housing wouldn't go up."
For those who do seek alternatives to greenfield development, there are two obvious, but challenging, solutions: infill and brownfield development. According to the EPA, there are an estimated 500,000 to one million brownfields in the country, frequently found in urbanized areas with industrial pasts, places like Chicago and New Jersey. "The larger the metro area and the more downtrodden the site, the more favorable the brownfield cost," says Ira Whitman, president of The Whitman Cos., an environmental engineering firm in East Brunswick, N.J.
Such sites may not be best for single-family homes--cleanup methods don't always call for complete removal of contaminants from brownfield properties, which could cause concern for family buyers--but high-density housing with parking lots or underground garages could work just fine.
"There's got to be a fit between the intended use, the character of the property, and the character of the area," Whitman says.
Of course, those low land prices don't include research and remediation. Investigating a former industrial site of one to two acres with soil and groundwater problems could run $50,000 to $100,000, with cleanup costs of $200,000 to $300,000.
"If that has a dampening effect [on your attitudes toward brownfield development], you have to flip the coin," says Whitman. "In some areas, the best land resources are the ones that need to be recycled rather than developed for the first time."
Federal programs can help. A new brownfield law provides $200 million to states and localities to support brownfield development.
But big problems require more than piecemeal solutions. As noted above, Orfield favors regional planning. "What regional planning promises to American builders is free infrastructure, lots of land that's open and ready for development with infrastructure, where they can decide what kind of housing to build and at what density," he says. "And they're going to get a lot richer."
Getting all the parties--local governments, builders and developers, citizens' groups, the business community--to the table for regional planning won't be easy. "It has to get really, really bad, like Silicon Valley during the Internet boom," predicts Fulton. "When affordable housing can't be found, home prices average $500,000, and people have to drive 70 miles to work, that's when they get interested."
Some have tried to get ahead of such pressures, with mixed reactions from those affected. Maryland's "smart growth" program tries to protect agricultural areas from development by allowing farmers to transfer their development rights to denser areas. The well-known "urban growth boundary" around Portland, Ore., established in the 1970s to preserve and support the state's agriculture and forest industries, concentrates growth around the city.
Such programs aren't always so popular with builders because of the restrictions involved. "Builders aren't against smart growth. They're against regulation," says Chuck Ellison, vice president of land development for Mid-Atlantic builder Miller & Smith, who says smart-growth initiatives should provide more flexibility, not less, to builders. In Maryland, requirements for stream buffers, tree preservation, and impervious-surface limits just make higher densities that much more difficult to achieve, he says. "You're limited on what you can do."
And building in a designated smart-growth area doesn't ensure citizen support, as builders and developers know. One local developer proposed a moderately priced development in Bethesda, Md., that initially met with Montgomery County's approval. "The citizens came out, and now the county council is starting to waver," Ellison says. "Even though it's dense, the local residents don't want it."
In some places, though, those attitudes are slowly starting to change. In Charlotte, N.C., where urban planners have encouraged the gradual increasing of density, builders have seen the new approach work. "Higher density is welcomed," says Frank Martin, chairman of LandCraft, a Charlotte developer that frequently improves land for national home builders. "That's not to say you don't have neighbors coming out against it, but that doesn't prevail anymore."
It's not a giant density increase--residential zoning that used to be 2.5 homes per acre is now six per acre, for example--but it's been accepted by builders and buyers. "We've found a good market" for denser single-family detached homes, says Jim Burbank, adviser to Saussy-Burbank, a Charlotte-based Carolina builder owned by Arvida.
Built at five to seven units per acre, the neo-traditional communities appeal to the typical single and young-couple suspects and beyond. "If you do it in the context of a master planned community [with parks and common areas]," Burbank says, "then families will go for it too." (See "TND Tide".)
On the other side of the country, where population and resource issues are colliding daily, such attitude adjustments are inevitable, says Fulton. "In coastal California, the realistic dream is about to become attached."
"[The area] is unlikely to sustain two more generations of single-family detached," he says. "It's a huge transition for everyone in America to make, including home buyers and home builders. There are a lot of people resistant to that at a visceral level."
As Ellison puts it: "All the things that you see are wrong with sprawl are part of someone else's American Dream."
Finding the balance
Despite all the challenges, new development that satisfies both the need for housing and a respect for the natural world can be done. In Lancaster County, Pa., Charter Homes recently broke ground on Mill Creek, a 243-home subdivision on 87 acres. Mill Creek is a greenfield development--the property used to be farmland--but it's one that will honor its topography, history, and environment.
Forty acres of open space will be left undeveloped, including a stream buffer that will serve as a wildlife corridor and a section of meadow that leads down a hill to Mill Creek and the woods, passing by an old barn on the way. "It's a beautiful view," says Rob Bowman, president of Lancaster-based Charter. "We wanted to preserve that landscape."
The builder took similar care with Conard Road, an old country lane that runs through the property, setting homes back from the street so they can't be seen and retaining the experience of driving home on a rural Lancaster road. "It's for the enjoyment of people, even if they're only driving through," Bowman says, "because one of the most pleasant things about this county is the drive."
That orientation--toward the preservation rather than the homogenization of Lancaster's landscape--is what drew Bowman to the property in the first place. "We thought, 'If we're not going to do it, we're going to regret it in the long term,'" says Bowman, who worked closely with the township to gain approval for a denser, clustered plan rather than use the property's lower-density-by-right zoning. "The ordinances were very typical of the 1950s," he says. "We wanted to use neo-traditional planning yet build and plan the community in a way that respected the heritage of the area."
Local officials approved, even when citizens didn't. "There was [public resistance], but I have to give the township credit," Bowman says. "The resistance that we did get wasn't set aside, but it didn't drive the process."
And Bowman respects the concerns that he heard. "Central Pennsylvania is a beautiful spot, and Lancaster County has a strong agricultural heritage," he says, "and we're now feeling the pressure to balance what we all love and the growth that has come to the area."
It's not a struggle from which he plans to absent himself, and he challenges his fellow builders to do the same. "As an industry, we need to look at what our communities will look like in 20 or 30 years," Bowman says. "Any part we can play, large or small, can make a difference. It is something we will have to do, or we will be legislated out of the decision-making."
The Lancaster builder expects the same of himself and his company. "I want to do our part to explore different options to balance growth and what we have. If it's not us, then who? Someone has to step up and take the opportunity."
Minnesota thinker says he's got the solution for growth management.
Don't lump Myron Orfield with the smart-growthers.
"If you look at the smart-growth movement, three-fourths of it would be what I call bad growth, disguised with an environmental fig leaf, and one-fourth of it would be good stuff--coordinated regional planning," says Orfield, a Minnesota state legislator and author of two highly regarded books, Metropolitics: A Regional Agenda for Community and Stability (1997) and American Metropolitics: The New Suburban Reality (2002). "What happens in most smart growth is a community saying no and throwing growth farther out into farmland that's unable to cope with it. That's bad, and that should stop, but unless you get a more coordinated approach, that's inevitable."
Orfield advocates business-friendly regional planning, where "you get the infrastructure for free, you reduce the market barriers for builders, and you help builders build whatever they want to. You use the land more efficiently, and you allow them to increase the density if they believe the market wants it.
"This is the way to have almost all of it," he says, referring to public worries about housing affordability, the health of central cities, and other growth-related issues. "You keep your house prices down, you give builders lots of opportunity, and you also get places that don't rot out from the core, so you can reinvest in them profitably."
Orfield's approach includes more than land-use reform. He also advocates fiscal equity and tax-base sharing as part of the regional planning process. That's because he believes that sprawl and fiscal stress go hand in hand, especially in what he calls the bedroom-developing suburbs with low-density development, growing populations (particularly among school-age children), and lots of new housing. "They're not stressed by poverty--they're stressed by an enormous amount of children and an enormous amount of infrastructure needs on a small tax base."
Keep the planet--and your proposed subdivisions--from being a victim of anti-growth sentiment. Zoning laws won't change overnight, and neither will environmentalists' attitudes toward new development, but builders shouldn't stay silent in the density debate.
"You're in an advantageous position because you understand the issues, whereas the average person screaming at a public hearing may not be able to make a logical argument," says Jim Burbank, adviser to Arvida-owned Saussy-Burbank, which closed about 500 homes in three Carolina cities in 2002. "Builders certainly can't control [the growth debate], but they can have a lot of influence."
They also have connections, which can be used to establish the most elusive attribute among the parties involved in land planning today: trust. "People say, 'Think globally, act locally,'" says Patricia Salkin, associate dean at Albany Law School in Albany, N.Y., "but at the local level, people don't trust each other."
Or your plans. If you're tired of seeing your traditional neighborhood developments (TNDs) shot down by uninformed county staffers, sponsor a TND information session and invite local planners and elected officials, who often have limited training budgets. You'll get the word out about new types of development and begin to build relationships.
Here's another idea: Organize a public forum on land-use issues with other interested groups, such as the American Planning Association, and invite the community, including any opposition forces. "You get the speakers for free, the advertisements for free. All it will cost you is the staff time and the sweat equity of putting it together," says Salkin, who says such events give people the opportunity to discuss growth issues "without going after a particular application"--i.e., yours.