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Adding Up the Costs of Sprawl

 Next time your city, town, or county government is thinking about giving yet another developer permission for another humongous sprawling development on the fringe of town, tell town planners to sharpen their pencils. You and all the other current residents of the region will be helping to pay for that growth for years after the developer has moved on to the next green pasture. How do you figure?

According to the Sierra Club, the idea that development strengthens the local tax base has turned from fact in the 1980s to fiction in the 1990s. “Today,“ says Larry Bohlen in the organization's report, The Costs of Sprawl, “increases in tax revenues are eaten up by the costs to the community of delivering new services, including water and sewer lines, schools, police and fire protection, and roads for people who live far away from existing infrastructure.”

For example, the city of Fresno, California has doubled in size since 1980, producing $56 million in yearly revenues, according to the Sierra Club. Yet the costs of services has risen to $123 million, not including costs for roads and sewers.

And it's the people in the inner cities who end up absorbing the additional costs created by those who have fled to the suburbs. According to a Florida State University study, the actual costs of providing new sewer hookups to the mostly Black, center-city neighborhoods near the sewage plant in Tallahassee, Florida, were $4,447. For the upscale Lakeside neighborhoods at the northern edge of the city, the actual costs for new sewer hookups were $11,442. Despite the nearly $7,000 difference in real cost, all households pay the same price, about $6,000, for sewer connections. That means that poor families living near the sewer not only have to put up with the smell, but they pay more for their hookups than it actually costs the government to serve them.

“Schools are the single most expensive item associated with new development,” says Eben Fodor in his book Better Not Bigger, “yet the growth-related costs of schools are rarely calculated by the districts that must provide the facilities.” To put this into perspective, from 1970 to 1990, Minneapolis-St. Paul closed 162 physically adequate schools in urban and central suburban areas. They opened 78 new schools in the outer suburbs during these two decades.

Sprawl also puts more cars on the road, since suburban drivers drive three times as much (and twice as fast) as inner city dwellers. Therefore, communities need more and bigger parking garages and spaces. According to Alan Durning of the Northwest Environment Watch, parking garages cost the community approximately $15,000 per space in construction expenses, which comes out of tax money or out of the pockets of local businesses. “Because businesses and households are forced to spend so much money providing parking, we pay more for the tomatoes at the grocery store, get lower wages, and pay extra for housing,” says Todd Litman of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute in British Colombia.

On the whole, according to Fodor, studies on the cost of sprawl show that compared to outer suburbia, “compact, well-planned growth consumes about 45 percent less land and costs 25 percent less for roads, 20 percent less for utilities, and 5 percent less for schools.” These, of course, are only monetary costs and don't include environmental costs, such as loss of open space and wildlife, increased noise, decreased air and water quality.

For more information, see “The Best Ideas for Revitalizing Your Community”

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