NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Sprawl Is Local, Not Federal Concern

April 12, 1999

A recent survey by the Competitive Enterprise Institute found that two-thirds of the respondents identified "sprawl" as a problem. Sprawl is hard to define, but is generally considered to be too much land development, or too much land developed badly.

However, only about 5 percent of our land is developed, and three-quarters of the population lives on 3.5 percent of the land. Still, people feel the squeeze from traffic jams and disappearing suburban land, and the Clinton administration seems likely to respond with some kind of federal action, possibly including tax breaks for land preservation, grants for land purchases, funds shifted from road maintenance to public transit, etc.

However, land planning, except on federal lands, is constitutionally and appropriately a local concern, and states and cities have answered the call to manage growth.

  • Local governments have used zoning for years to plan land use.
  • More recently, 19 states have established either state growth-management laws or task forces.
  • During the 1998 elections, more than 200 growth-control initiatives appeared on ballots nationwide, and about half passed.

If the federal government wants to engage in appropriate action, it could do the following:

  • End so-called death taxes, which cause many family farms to be sold to developers when a farmer dies and his heirs face huge tax bills.
  • End unfunded federal mandates which force cities to raise taxes or take money from traditional core services (police, schools, roads) and drive people to the suburbs.
  • Spend highway dollars on roads and quit squandering them on expensive, misguided public transportation projects.

Finally, those at every level of government should recognize the folly in trying to determine how people will or should want to live 10, 25 or 50 years in the future.

Source: H. Sterling Burnett (senior analyst, National Center for Policy Analysis), "Truly Smart Growth Involves Freedom," Dallas Morning News, April 10, 1999.


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