‘Turned off the TV/ sat down to dinner/ phone rang, we were saying grace/grandma died, left us 60 acres/ the last of the old home place.’
—James McMurtry, from his song “60 Acres”
Almost 15 years ago, as a new reporter at a small-town weekly newspaper, I got a rude awakening about how our landscapes were changing. The county where I worked was quite large, and had long been agricultural. But farming had become cost-prohibitive for average folks, and many people who inherited family farms were choosing to sell to developers rather than beat their heads against the wall trying to work the land.
Some shrewd land companies were operating at the time, and they had a pretty simple M.O.: buy up farms and subdivide them into massive symmetrical arrays. It was common to see lots, comprising more than two acres, that were 150 feet wide and 1,320 feet deep (that’s a quarter of a mile!). So you’d have the illusion of owning a house on a sizable lot, although much of the land was largely wasted.
It looked something like this:
The thing is, these “subdivisions” were often at the far ends of far-flung roads, literally miles from the most basic utilities like water and electric power. Many of these roads were not paved. Soon enough, people who’d bought houses in these developments were showing up at county meetings to complain about a lack of services. They didn’t like their nearly nonexistent water pressure. They didn’t like gravel dust all over their cars and houses and just about everything else they owned. County officials would rightly point out that they didn’t have the funds to extend services to areas that, by comparison, still had light population density. The debate just kept going around and around. And our newspaper reported countless stories of frustrated homeowners and frustrated county officials, and developers who would raise their hands and say, in effect, “I’m a free market entrepreneur. What do you want from me?”
County leaders gradually adjusted regulations to get a better handle. But trying to keep up with developers who work at it all day, every day, and doing so within a political context where — I am not making this up — some citizens accused elected officials of practicing “communism” by exercising any controls whatsoever, well, it’s a David vs. Goliath proposition. And even though municipalities have improved their planning processes, it’s still a cat and mouse game as developers, supported by what Louisville writer Grady Clay dubbed “the sprawl machinery” — a loose and unofficial amalgam of elected officials, bankers, suppliers and whatnot — constantly figure out new ways to get what they want.
This dynamic is still in full flower, and it’s observable in every county in Metro Louisville. It was all on my mind last week during a Smart Growth Summit, sponsored by Jeffersonville Main Street. The keynote speakers were Kennedy Smith, longtime director of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Main Street program, and Parris Glendening, the former governor of Maryland who led that state’s innovations in Smart Growth and who is now president of the Smart Growth Leadership Institute.
The daylong event included an impressive array of seminars about how development impacts economics, schools, public health, transportation and so on. As you’d expect, it had the distinct feel of a choir. Several advocacy groups were represented, as well as Realtors and bankers. There were a handful of elected officials from Southern Indiana, and none from Jefferson County.
Glendening shared many reasonable insights. He pointed out that development policies have actually subsidized sprawl for some 60 years, and how it’s generally easier to develop land far removed from the urban core because zoning and historic regulations in urban areas tend to prohibit density and create endless red tape.
This really is a matter of connecting the dots and, as he stressed, framing the debate in terms of how it affects real people. Think of the businessman, humping it to make it to his kid’s 5 p.m. soccer game near their suburban home but getting stuck in traffic. Did you know childhood asthma rates have doubled in 20 years, or that a generation ago, 82 percent of kids walked to school, and today that number is 12 percent? Did you know excessive pavement routes rainfall in unnatural ways that screws up aquifers and leads to long heat waves and droughts interspersed with intense rain events? Did you know tax burdens are far more substantial in communities with lower density because fewer people pay into the collective pie plate?
There are systemic problems, Glendening said, and laws will need to be changed. Smart Growth advocates should rely on evidence and persuasion, he said, but a sense of urgency is paramount, because time is marching on. The U.S. population, fueled primarily by immigration, is projected to increase by 110 million by 2040, requiring another 70 million housing units.
Like it or not, this story really does affect everyone.
To check out the Smart Growth Leadership
Institute, go to www.sgli.org. Kennedy Smith is now a principal of the Clue Group (Community Land Use and Economic), which can be located at www.cluegroup.com.
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