The following is a guest essay from Joel S. Hirschhorn, author of Sprawl Kills: How Blandburbs Steal Your Time, Health and Money. He can be reached through sprawlkills.com.
When the small town of Warrenton in sprawl-rich northern Virginia received an offer of $22 million in cash from Centex Homes, one of the nation’s largest developers and home builders, one reaction of concerned parties was, OK, sounds like an environmentally acceptable plan for nearly 300 new homes. But closer examination reveals a development plan that comes nowhere near meeting smart-growth values. It also illustrates the tactics of large sprawl developers as they face opposition from those concerned about uncontrolled growth gobbling up rural America. Sprawl bribery is just another dimension of sprawl politics: using money to buy off government officials. And using just one aspect of good smart growth design — clustering of homes — creates the illusion of environmental benefit.
This amount of money is a big deal for a town with just 8,000 people. In fact, it’s half the town’s annual budget. For Centex, it means getting the town to annex the property so the developer can connect homes to the town’s sewer system. The county will get a separate $1.2 million, plus $2.8 million from the town’s money. Centex will save several years of expensive approval-seeking activities. With just 40 miles separating the development from Washington, D.C., this deal is a sprawl developer’s dream. The luxury homes are slated to sell for $850,000 and more — probably a lot more. So the roughly $78,000-per-home cost of this deal makes business sense. At most it pushes up already planned high home prices a little more. Indeed, a Centex official said the cost was simply the "price of doing business."
So why did slow growth and smart growth advocates find the project acceptable? The company cut its original number of homes in half and said it would place them in a cluster on 25 percent of the 492-acre parcel, with the remaining land to stay largely undeveloped.
Like so many clever new sprawl projects, this one is designed for a niche group, namely "seniors." That makes the development attractive to town officials — there will be no impact on schools. (Though it’s interesting to question whether resale of homes to families with children could be legally prevented.) From a smart-growth perspective, this design for seniors means no mixed-income housing and no social diversity. Social isolation is the result. The new residents will have little in common with the lower-economic-status older residents in the area. Even if there are no walls and gates, the new development will be an enclave for wealthy people. Forget affordable housing. Certainly sprawl developers have.
With its small size, the project is not mixed-use. This means the new, affluent residents will be driving like nuts and clogging existing roads to get to every type of place they require for shopping, entertainment, medical, and other services — and not just local roads, but also the already-clogged highways for getting to and from Washington, D.C.
The point is that no one should be fooled. This is absolutely just another sprawl project that uses the now-frequent "concession" of clustering homes to maintain most of a site in its natural state. But remember that the local green space will belong to the new residents. It will not be public green space. So in a real sense, each home is using nearly 1.7 acres, not .4 of an acre, assuming only 25 percent of the land is used.
When is clustering a deception? When it is used to camouflage sprawl. Wealthy Americans are still gobbling up green space.
Smart-growth advocates and environmentalists need to stop being pleased by "half-a-loaf" sprawl projects. This kind of thinking is how worthy social movements become marginalized. Clustering homes is what developers should use in true smart-growth projects. And the annexation tactic is just another game played by developers to reduce their costs for new public infrastructure. Local governments desperate for new revenues must be held accountable for enabling new sprawl projects, especially in more distant, largely rural settings. As in times past, what seems like a good financial deal in the short term usually becomes a losing deal in the longer term when all the costs of new sprawl development hit local governments.
Sprawl bribery is a growing dimension of sprawl politics, a shrewd tactic of the sprawl industry. It knows how to survive. It has not been stopped for over 50 years, despite repeated attempts to curb sprawl. It may seem sad that the opposition to sprawl is contributing to higher home prices, but higher prices for sprawl places might make them less attractive — except for the fact that so much new sprawl development is aimed at wealthy Americans.