By Nicholas L. Cain
Imagine wanting to move. You find 450 acres of prime open space in a
beautiful, rural area of green meadows and rolling hills. To sweeten the deal a wealthy
friend offers you almost $200 million to help you ease in to your new surroundings. Would
you make the jump?
Of course you would. And so did Merrill Lynch, who was recently given such
a deal - courtesy of state and local taxpayers - to stay put in New Jersey and build a new
campus in an undeveloped area.
Most every time a new, sprawling development is built, taxpayers pay the
price," noted Deron Lovaas, the Sierra Club's Challenge to Sprawl representative.
"New Jersey has sworn to fight sprawl and grow more intelligently. Yet Hopewell
Township, where Merrill Lynch is building its new office park, is a symptom of a bigger
problem: We are subsidizing sprawl as we try to fight it."
Most Americans have become well-acquainted with the effects of poorly
planned growth: endless traffic, polluted air, tainted water and lost green space. What
few people realize is that sprawling development is not only destroying the environment,
it is draining pocketbooks and raising taxes.
A new report by the Sierra Club, "Sprawl Costs Us All: How Your Taxes
Fuel Suburban Sprawl," details the way sprawl is subsidized throughout the United
"It's like trying to slow a car down with one foot stomping on the
gas and the other foot tapping on the brake," said Kathryn Hohmann, director of the
Sierra Club's Environmental Quality Program. "We are subsidizing sprawl both through
government spending on things like highways, and as part of the development process
itself. Not only does this cost us money, it tilts the playing field to encourage more
When a new residential or commercial development - like the Merrill Lynch
campus - springs up outside of an existing community, roads, sewer systems and water lines
have to be extended. As the development expands, it requires schools and emergency
services. In most cases, neither the developers nor the new residents pay their full, fair
share - the rest of us must make up the difference.
A small county in Arizona presents a stark example. According to the
report, Pima County allows "wildcat subdivisions" - where builders are subject
to few regulations - to be built almost anywhere. Each new home built in a wildcat
development costs the county $23,000 for things like sewer service and police patrols,
while contributing only about $1,700 in property taxes. Not surprisingly, this is adding
up: Wildcat subdivisions are estimated to cost the county $35 to $55 million a year.
Unfortunately, the subsidies built into the development process aren't the
only way the public pays. Federal, state and local government programs also end up
At the federal level, taxpayers spend over four times as much on new
highways than on public transportation. And the billions poured into these roads is all
too often an excuse to build, rather than an authentic response to transportation needs.
At the state and local level, the competition to attract business and
development - again, like Merrill Lynch's office park - often results in tax-credits and
other subsidies that needlessly encourage sprawling growth.
A recent survey found suburban sprawl tied with crime as one of the top
national concerns. So why do we keep sprawling? As the Club's report demonstrates,
haphazard growth is being fueled by billions of dollars in government subsidies.
Fortunately, there are other options: Cutting the subsidies that feed
sprawl to ensure that the costs of growth are fairly shared and employing tested
smart-growth techniques. A study of Virginia Beach found that smart-growth planning that
protected open space and channeled development into existing communities could save well
over $300 million in infrastructure costs while conserving farm land and cutting air
pollution by half.
"The environmental effects of suburban sprawl are pretty clear. But
the subsidies that encourage it are a largely hidden side of the story," summed up
Hohmann. "The good news is that by cutting these subsidies we can protect the
environment while saving money and lowering our taxes."
See the full report.
Up to Top