Conference Panelists Debate Suburban Sprawl, Local Political Autonomy

February 1, 2005
Georgette Chapman Poindexter discussed her paper on sprawl, "Land Hungry."

Americans prefer their commodities big, like SUVs and super-size fries, which may explain why many urban exiles — known as "cappuccino cowboys" by some — are also seeking big houses on big open land, theorized Georgette Chapman Poindexter, a real estate and law professor at the University of Pennsylvania. While the amount of developed land has increased 47 percent from 1982 to 1997, the population has only grown 17 percent, resulting in a pattern of sprawl that is more expensive for governments to administer, she told the audience at "Democracy in Action? The Law and Politics of Local Governance," a Jan. 29 conference sponsored by the Journal of Law & Politics. Poindexter joined several law professors in a panel on Suburbanization and Urban Sprawl that discussed the ways in which local government and voters' desires interact in land development decisions.

When it comes to examining why sprawl happens, "we cannot ignore the effects of zoning," she said, a "highly fragmentary" process because of the nature of local government. The United States has an estimated 36,000 municipalities which have produced sometimes conflicting patterns of land use in the suburbs.

Sprawl happens in some cities because of simple population growth, such as in Los Angeles, but in others, like Philadelphia, per capita land consumption has increased 89 percent in recent years, with only 11 percent due to population growth.

People are choosing to move to the suburbs or farther not because they need a place to live "but rather because they want to live there," and entrenched local government interrelations facilitate this choice. Moving to the suburbs is ingrained in Americans' psyche as a middle-class ideal, and landowners can make more money from residential rather than agricultural use.

Compounding the problem of suburban sprawl is the "dirty little secret" of urban flight: "People want to roll up the welcome mat once they have purchased their little piece of paradise," Poindexter said. What she called the "first-mover advantage" sets unrealistic expectations that open space will remain that way. Local government is controlled by people who want to preserve open space, ostensibly for environmental reasons but more accurately because Americans are encouraged to identify space with self and want to protect their turf, she said. "Insiders want to keep the outsiders from consuming what they have already consumed."

Neighbors who have property bordering undeveloped land may petition their local government to keep the land undeveloped-and can often win their request. Poindexter said this imposes a political solution on an economic problem, but the people who don't benefit-neighbors who are completely surrounded by developed land-also end up paying for the government to preserve the land, for example through increased taxes to support buying conservation easements. Poindexter proposed instead that property owners who want neighboring land to remain undeveloped pay an extra tax to support the cost to local government, so those who don't oppose land development or whose property does not border potential development would not be unfairly taxed.

Suburban homeowners who benefit from local governments stepping in to stop development at their behest "are in effect getting a freebie," Poindexter charged. They capture the political process while others pay for it.

Sheryll Cashin

Georgetown law professor Sheryll Cashin, who lives in the Washington, D.C., area, questioned some of the conclusions Poindexter drew in her paper about why suburban sprawl happened. In D.C., lack of housing forces locals to buy what is available-suburban plots. In contrast, some studies show there is more demand for integrated, mixed-use neighborhoods that are walkable and livable. Developers may not be building what people want, Cashin argued.

"Low-density sprawl does not pay for itself in terms of infrastructure," she said, suggesting that the problem might be as easily solved with a growth boundary or growth moratorium.

William Fischel


Vicki Been

Dartmouth law professor William Fischel cautioned that measurements of urban and suburban development vary widely, casting doubt on the growth statistics Poindexter reported. The most convincing studies of development use remote sensing satellites, he said, showing that only 2 percent of the American land mass is urban. He suggested that Poindexter measure households rather than population, because suburban families are having fewer children, in contrast to the baby boomers that first experienced the suburbs as children. Still, "we probably have too low a density in our suburbs," he admitted.

On the other hand, "sprawl" is often used as a pejorative term. Fischel noted we once worried about high-density areas, calling them "slums." Over time people came to realize high density was not necessarily bad, and perhaps the same transformation of thought could happen for the suburb, he suggested.

NYU law professor Vicki Been explained that it's unclear whether people really want the land and big houses or good school districts, and opposition to further development could be based on concern about crowded schools rather than desire for open vistas. Been suggested that Poindexter flip her question and examine what motivates people to live in dense areas.

Furthermore, Been said Poindexter should examine the legal ramifications of using a tax plan to pay for easements. "I think it's somewhat dangerous to go where you're going without thinking more seriously about the kinds of legal mechanisms that are in play," she said.

Other solutions may exist: motivating developers to build quickly so homeowners don't get used to the open space next door, for example.

Panelists suggested that suburban sprawl may be encouraged by local governments who fail to cooperate to create responsible regional development plans.

Barron and Frug
David Barron, left, and Gerald Frug

Harvard law professors Gerald Frug and David Barron discussed their paper on local autonomy, for which they interviewed officials from 101 cities and towns in the Boston area. Frug said area officials were in effect practicing "defensive localism"-they worry about doing anything that would make them lose what little power they have. Massachusetts has weak home rule, he explained. Localities have little power because they operate under many state restrictions, yet they oppose regionalism, which might offer them more power and better ways to plan and operate their communities.

"Home rule is a joke" to local officials around Boston, Barron added, but the same officials often say regionalism "would be a total threat to our autonomy." Barron said officials have legitimate concerns about how they are restrained. The Massachusetts constitution of 1967 offered locals home rule, but any power delegated to localities cannot be used if it's inconsistent with state law. A number of other exceptions also bind authorities. Localities do have the power to zone and make their own charter, a process that is seldom used because it is so onerous. As a result, localities are increasingly dependent on state aid for funding, and that aid often comes with strings attached.

Localities are reluctant to join forces because they have few tools to improve a failed joint effort, Barron said, and don't want a local partner to reap greater benefits than they themselves might. State law requires that there be a lead municipality in any joint agreement, meaning one locality will bear the administrative brunt of a project. Localities can deal with private parties without the approval of town officials, but to work with other localities requires the approval of the local legislative body, creating a bottleneck that further discourages regional development plans.

"The way the state deals with localities is not designed to foster anything like a regional consciousness," he said. "When they talked about the region, it was a much smaller area than greater Boston."

One way to induce greater local [regional?] cooperation may be to condition state funds on making cooperative deals, but that idea is not likely to be supported by local officials because funds can easily be taken away, Barron said.

Barron and Frug instead suggested that the state start relaxing state constraints to promote cooperation among localities.

Responding to their paper, Fischel suggested that Frug and Barron also survey voters or homeowners about whether they are willing to pay higher prices for participating local governments. He said the authors will need to come to grips with the fact that people who are buying houses care a lot about their local borders, and in particular, school district borders. Whether you offer localities money or more autonomy, "the holder of the stick can always withdraw the carrot."

Been praised Frug and Barron for exposing how little states are doing to provide incentives for local cooperation, but noted that the approach of granting more autonomy for improved cooperation has been tried in states like New Jersey, with mixed results.

Cashin pointed out that Frug and Barron missed an important key to understanding localities-that most local governments in the 1950s and 1960s formed in response to the Brown decision declaring segregated schools unconstitutional, as well as the desire to escape high city taxes. "The areas of local power that are most prized, I believe, are the ones that are most tied to gate-keeping functions-that are most tied to control over socioeconomic destiny, primarily the zoning power.

"The reason that I'm a regionalist, the reason that I care so much about these issues [is] I would like a society that is more inclusive," she said. "I would like a society…[where] every school district has to have a certain number of seats that are completely decoupled from the ability to buy a house."

Even if you give localities more autonomy "you would still have this very difficult problem of protecting what is mine."

Cashin noted that studies show it is rare for localities that are very different racially to enter into compacts.

"These very, very difficult problems are not going to be solved without engaging people in the deliberation… and giving them some say in the solution."

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