Truly Smart Growth Involves Freedom

Commentary by H. Sterling Burnett

Urban sprawl has sparked a national debate over land-use policy. Although a clear definition of sprawl remains elusive, the notion seems to be that too much of the U.S. land base is being developed or at least that what is being developed is being developed. Indeed, in a national environmental survey of 1000 registered voters, the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) found that two-thirds of the respondents identified "sprawl" as a concern.

Actually only about 5 percent of our land is developed, and three-quarters of the population lives on 3.5 percent of the land. But many people are frustrated with the traffic jams they associate with urban sprawl.

Others who moved out of cities to get a taste of country life are disturbed to see the horse pastures and farms neighboring their homes disappear. And big-city mayors blame suburban development for the decline of the inner cities.

Regardless of whether sprawl is really a problems, it is likely that some level of government will respond. The Clinton Administration has proposed to make sprawl a federal issue, and Vice-President Al Gore has proposed a "Livability Agenda."

Depending on what's included - tax breaks for land preservation, grants for land purchases, funds shifted from road maintenance to public transit, etc.- the administration would give federal bureaucrats an additional $1 billion to $10 billion per year to manage local growth.

But people generally recognize that land planning, except on federal lands, is constitutionally and appropriately a local concern As evidence, in CEI's survey only 8 percent of respondents thought that the federal government should address sprawl. And cities and states have not ignored the call of action to manage growth.

Local governments have been involved in land-use planning for many years through zoning. More recently, 19 states have established either state growth-management laws or task forces. And during the 1998 elections, more than 200 urban growth control initiatives appeared on the ballots across the nation - approximately half of them passed.

If the federal government is bend on getting involved, here are some constructive steps it could take:

  • End so-called death taxes. Many family farms are sold to housing developers when a farmer dies and his heirs, facing a huge tax bill, sell the farm for subdivisions. Ending the death tax would allow those who inherit land to stay on it if they so choose.
  • End unfunded federal mandates. When mandates forces cities to raise taxes or take money from core city services - causing schools to deteriorate, police sub-stations to close, libraries and firehouses to shut their doors and roads to develop large potholes, cities cease to be fun places to live in and raise families - taxpayers escape to new suburban developments.
  • Spend highway dollars on roads and quit squandering them on massive public transportation projects like light rail service from the suburbs to the inner city. Public transit, especially light rail, does not serve the present needs of commuters. Most people live in suburbs and they commute to businesses outside of downtown areas. The majority of folks work, shop, dine and partake in recreational activities in their own or in neighboring suburbs - however, trains always run from downtown to the suburbs. The federal government should spend highway dollars on roads not rails. While Washington bureaucrats and urban planners won't like this suggestion, the people they are supposed to serve will. More roads would reduce traffic congestion and its associated air pollution and high stress levels.

Those are some constructive steps the federal government could take. Soviet-style central planning isn't a constructive step.

For that matter, the idea that anyone, at any level of government, can plan how people will live or should want to live 10, 25 or 50 years in the future is ridiculous. Leaving more in peoples hands through tax cuts and allowing them the freedom to choose their own housing, travel and shopping arrangements would be a true "smart growth," plan.

This version of the Dallas Morning News Opinion Editorial is a modification of the original.