The sprawl of the post-WWII era doesn’t seem to be the sprawl of the new millennium. In fact, with the recession and its crash of the housing market, sprawl just about dried up. But the housing market is starting to turn around, and with it a return to the old familiar development style. Places like Otsego, Minnesota, were really just dormant, waiting for fresh cash to resume the sprawl. Developments that were begun there are now enticing deals for new developers to pick up were the old developer left off. But some argue that sprawl is over. Author Leigh Gallagher feels that the statistics that show adults marrying later, teens going without licenses and general wariness of housing post-collapse has led people to more urban settings. Others, like engineer Taylor Anderson feel that “the death of sprawl was probably pronounced too soon” (nytimes.com, 2013). He points to the continued sprawl of Atlanta that is now pushing into Alabama. The fact is that as long as there is money to be made, developments will keep pushing into new territory. The question is how to control how homes are built.
There are multiple land use controls that can be applied in the taming of sprawl. Some have strong supporters and just as strong detractors. One such hot button issue is the use of minimum lot sizes. The first and most obvious issue with large minimum lot sizes is the effect on affordable housing. Large lot sizes with their equally large houses keep moderate and low-income buyers out of the town that uses such zoning. Proponents point to successes at controlling growth, but another detractor could be the farmer. Farmers are fighting back, calling the large lot sizes a taking by not allowing them to fully develop their land.
Some studies cite fees as a deterrent to urban sprawl. Jan Brueckner of the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois suggests three such fees: a development tax for land converted from agriculture to urban; a “congestion toll” for highway use; and an “impact fee”, to cover infrastructure costs (igpa.uillinois.edu/). Also suggested is a change in the mortgage interest deduction (Fischel, cato.org). But more taxes and fees are liable to get massive push-back from the public. Taxes and fees that an individual “sees” (less take home pay, higher ezpass bills) are harder to swallow than ones he/she doesn’t see (fees to a developer, who buries the cost in the selling of the property, or higher rents).
Cluster zoning may be the best choice. Open space could be preserved, the same number of houses built, but smaller lot sizes and houses would open up the town to a wider array of buyers. Gallagher had mentioned the adverse effect the housing crisis had on potential buyers. Maybe more people, not just low and moderate income people, would like the option of purchasing smaller homes and having more manageable mortgages.
Recession years will always see a decline in sprawl. The boom years in between will always see a return to the excesses that push us further into rural landscapes unless proper land use and zoning controls are utilized and urban areas are kept a viable option as attractive and useful mixed-use spaces.