The Brawl Over Sprawl

  • I hear the whistle of the locomotive in the woods... Whew! Whew! Whew! How is real estate here in the swamp and wilderness?
    --Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1842

    Which brings us to greater Atlanta, 1999. Once a wilderness, it's now a 13-county eruption, one that has been called the fastest-spreading human settlement in history. Already more than 110 miles across, up from just 65 in 1990, it consumes an additional 500 acres of field and farmland every week. What it leaves behind is tract houses, access roads, strip malls, off ramps, industrial parks and billboards advertising more tract houses where the peach trees used to be. Car exhaust is such a problem that Washington is withholding new highway funding until the region complies with federal clean-air standards. On a bad traffic day--basically any weekday with a morning and evening in it--you can review whole years of your life in the time it takes to get from Blockbuster to Fuddruckers.

    "We can't go on like this," says Georgia Governor Roy Barnes, a "smart growth" Democrat who was elected last year. Barnes has proposed a regional transportation authority that can block local plans for the new roads that encourage development. But dumb growth is not confined to Atlanta. Half a century after America loaded the car and fled to the suburbs, these boundless, slapdash places are making people want to flee once more. "All of a sudden, they're playing leapfrog with a bulldozer," says Al Gore, who wants to be the antisprawl candidate in 2000.

    For Gore, turning an assortment of suburban complaints into a vote-getting issue is no sure thing. But the fact that he's trying shows that suburban overgrowth has become a national headache. Instead of just fleeing the sprawl (and thus creating more of it), people are groping for ways to fight it. Last November there were no fewer than 240 antisprawl ballot initiatives around the country. Most of them passed. Some stripped local authorities of the power to approve new subdivisions without voter assent. Others okayed tax money to buy open land before the developers get it. In the largest of those, New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman successfully pushed a referendum to use sales-tax money to buy half the state's undeveloped land--a million acres. "Americans are finally realizing that once you lose land, you can't get it back," she says.

    Twelve states have already enacted growth-management laws. Tennessee just adopted one of the strictest, requiring many cities to impose growth boundaries around their perimeters. In Maryland, counties get state money for roads and schools only if they agree to confine growth to areas that the state has designated as suitable. But managed growth is not a win-win proposition. When laws make it harder to build in the countryside, new development is pressed into more expensive land closer to town. That can mean higher home prices, so the single mother who manages a doctor's office or the couple who make $38,000 a year must choose between a tiny apartment close to work and a 90-min. commute to housing they can afford.

    Limiting growth also means dealing with a profound conflict between the good of the community and the rights of the individual. For a lot of people, the good life still means a big house on a big yard. Who's to say they shouldn't get it? Yet smart growth envisions a nation packaged into town houses and apartments, a country that rides trains and buses and leaves the car at home. Everybody hates the drive time, the scuffed and dented banality, of overextended suburbs. But are we ready for the confinement and compromise the solutions require? Maybe not, according to a recent TIME/CNN poll. It showed that most people like greenbelts but don't trust government planning.

    Americans do believe in property rights--including the right to profit by selling. So the farmers and ranchers who feel squeezed out when tract housing plunks down next to their pasture often think about cashing in. "You get people waving millions," says Ben Wurtsmith, 67, a rancher in Colorado's Eagle County, not far from the exploding area around Vail. "Some days you just think about taking the money and taking off." One way to solve the problem, being used in parts of Colorado, is "development rights," which let builders put up houses more densely near town in exchange for payments to outlying farmers and ranchers to keep land open.

    There's another option being explored in Ventura County, northwest of Los Angeles. At night, what used to be dark hillsides are strung with lights from new tract housing. Those twinkling lights worked on Steve Bennett, a soft-spoken high school history teacher, until he'd had enough. Three years ago he co-founded SOAR (Save Open Space and Agricultural Resources) to get antisprawl initiatives on the ballot. It took just nine weeks last year for Bennett and his allies to collect the 75,000 signatures they needed. In November, large majorities in four of Ventura's five largest cities adopted rules that forbid the county to rezone land for development without voter approval. A fifth city came on board in January.

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