Vol. 8, No. 29
July 20-26, 2000
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Sprawl Report: Unwise Development a Taxing Matter

Too often, the debate over sprawl gets framed as a squabble between environmental advocates and business folk. The conservationists are depicted as wanting to block all growth to preserve nature and aesthetics. Builders and their allies are accused of pushing development to increase their bottom lines.
It’s not a fair characterization of either side, but those are the sorts of arguments we hear. Left out of this equation are people put off by both extremes.

A new report by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation sheds light on the effects of development on regular folk. The report, called “Land and the Chesapeake Bay,” paints a troubling picture of our changing surroundings. It notes, among other things, that the population in the Bay watershed has soared by more than 25 percent since the 1970s and that if things keep going the way they are, another 3,000 square miles of forests, farms and wetlands will disappear.

It goes without saying — although the Bay Foundation says it anyway — that if we don’t get a grip on sprawl, our progress in cleaning up the Bay will shortly be overwhelmed.

What we also found noteworthy in the report were the calculations not about future environmental health but about the cost to taxpayers now. We often hear how development brings wider prosperity and lifts all boats. But the report detailed how sprawl often burdens local economies and forces higher taxes.

How does this happen? New people settling in those subdivisions and carving out ranchettes where tobacco used to sprout demand roads, classrooms, firefighters close at hand and increased police protection. By that time, the developers are long gone.

In one of its case studies, the foundation calculated that each new home popping up in Prince William County in Virginia adds another $1,600 to the general tax bills.

Another Virginia county is trying to figure out how to pay for 23 new schools in the next six years. In a southern Pennsylvania county, the cost of taking care of the new roads alone has quadrupled since the 1980s.

Across the country, people are beginning to understand that sprawl means more than congestion, environmental threats and a diminished quality of life. They are realizing that sprawl costs money, raising taxes and keeping us rowing harder to stay afloat.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s report reiterates the threat of unmanaged growth to our greenspaces and recreation in the future. But it also reminds us that we should view each new strip mall and each new cluster of homes as a hand reaching into our pocket.

Copyright 2000
Bay Weekly