Editorial: Sprawl
May 2001

In our culture, we like clearly defined good guys and bad guys, the white hats and the black hats. Thus, when faced with a depressing sea of cookie cutter houses scattered across formerly prime farm land, we want to blame someone. We want to point fingers. It is the fault of the greedy farmer, the greedy developer, the greedy home buyer, the greedy politician.

But the truth is that “it” is no one’s fault. It, land planning, is a confluence of factors and decisions that are a reflection of those who take the most active roles in politics and policy. Land planning is also a reflection of the times, an attempt to make plans for the future based on the curent set of perceived needs. Like playing the ponies, sometimes you get it right, sometimes you don’t.

Suburban sprawl is not the fault of the farmers. A farmer has a right to make a living and support his family. Because of surrounding suburban pressures, farming can become increasing economically unviable. The land a farmer owns (or owns with the bank) may be his only capital asset, and sometimes it may make more financial sense for him to develop his land than for him to continue farming. Even with a plethora of land conservation options designed to make it more financially attractive to hold on to the land, developing the land may still be his best option. A farmer does not owe the neighbors a pastoral view. It is his land, it is his means of support, and he has the right to decide how it can best economically support him. He is simply responding to the pressures the community put into place via their land use planning.

Neither is suburban sprawl the “fault” of the land planners, those who create the master plans and influence zoning and development. Land planners are simply responding to a perceived community need. They have to filter the public commentary–and if most of the commentary comes from the representatives of the developers, and points of view don’t get expressed because community members with differing visions don’t take the time to get involved, than it is the developers to whom the planners will respond.

Additionally, there are no perfect solutions. What may have seemed like a good idea, 50 years later doesn’t work out as expected because of other community changes. Thirty years ago, when 1/8 and 1/4 acre lots were typical for a subdivision, 3 acre zoning in some select rural areas seemed like a practical way to ensure that “large” tracts of land stayed intact for farming. Planners in the 60s and 70s had no way of foreseeing the yuppy land rush of the 80s and 90s, as a newly minted upper-middle class, flush with tech & investment dollars, snapped up three acre lots with “executive mansions.” Who knew? Only hindsight is 20/20.

But these new homeowners, are not the bad guys either. Our society has fostered a culture of big cars, big homes, big lawns. Everyone wants their slice of idyllic “country life,” even if it is only a big lawn. So, if the opportunity is made available to them to own their slice of “rural” bliss with three or five or seven acres, why shouldn’t they take it? These newcomers were not the ones who influenced the land planning policy; it was the community that came before them that allowed for the land planning that made this opportunity available. The new homeowners are simply responding to the availability–made possible by the original community. Of course, the new homeowners need to be aware of being NIMBYs (see sidebar), but they are not the bad guys.

Neither are the developers the “bad guys.” In general, they are savvy businessmen doing what savvy businessmen do–make money. Our society has a capitalist-based economy, and the developers are simply capitalizing on society’s greed and poor planning. Why greed? Because we, as a community, via our representatives, the politicians and the planners, have believed that uncontrolled sprawl is good for our economy because it brings in tax dollars, without close examination of either the hard costs (cost of services) or the soft costs (long term intangibles, such as quality of life). Greed because the developers know that they can continue to bank on new homeowners who want all the perks of rural life without having to actually purchase the farm. This greed then motivated the poor urban/suburban/rural planning. So, even though they may have deep pockets and persuasive lobbyists, the developers are not the bad guys per se. We, as a society, perhaps lulled into a false sense of security, fell asleep at the switch, thus we did it to ourselves. We are all responsible.

In short, there is no “bad guy.” There is just a confluence of factors and decisions. The decision making process for land planning is lengthy and cumbersome, and is a reflection of diverse community influences and various community values, with everyone trying to predict the future. Sometimes good decisions are made that later turn out to be poor decisions, because there are no crystal balls.

But one salient fact remains…we can’t reclaim developed land to return it to farming, nor, as the saying goes, are they making any more of it. So it behooves everyone to be aware of the land planning process for their communities.