The Smart Money Is On Smart Growth

Bruce Katz and
Bruce Katz Founding Director of the Nowak Metro Finance Lab - Drexel University
Mark Muro

June 8, 2003

Is there a place for smart growth amid Connecticut’s foreseeable future of budget cuts and tax increases, once the current budget impasse gets resolved in special session?

Shouldn’t Gov. John G. Rowland be joining Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts in pursuing the fiscal benefits of curbing sprawl and fostering more compact growth in the region – if not this year, then next?

No and no, would be the conventional answers. Bad times, goes the conventional wisdom, are no time to try to reduce land consumption, rebuild struggling cities, and redirect inefficient development patterns. Do those things now, the skeptics will warn, and you’ll kill growth, widen the state’s $1.4 billion 2004-05 deficit and stray from the voters’ priorities.

And yet, here’s another view: Now is precisely the right moment for Connecticut and the Hartford region to re-evaluate and reform their longstanding, destructive and wasteful growth trends.

The reason is simple: Bad times accentuate cost-consciousness, and sprawl is incredibly costly, as numerous reports from around the states have made clear.

In good times, of course, sprawl accelerates, prompting public outcry.

In Hartford, for example, growth and development issues emerged as never before in the late 1990s as the region gobbled up some 5,800 more acres of rural and undeveloped land between 1990 and 2000, according to Census Bureau data analyzed by the Capital Region Council of Governments. Coming at a moment of negligible population growth in the area, such inefficient land consumption has prompted serious dialogue across the Hartford region (and in this newspaper) over how to protect the area’s traditional town centers and leafy quality of life.

But when the economy slows and tax collections sag, another rationale for reform comes to the fore: the significant costs to state and local government of providing new highways, new schools and new water pipes to ever more far-flung subdivisions.

In this environment, the costs of sprawl and the cost-saving promise of smart growth reforms become unmistakable.

On the cost side, the Connecticut General Assembly recently reported that the state’s taxpayer-funded debt – swollen by growth-related capital spending on items like roads and school buildings – reached $11.8 billion last year, a burden higher on a per capita basis than that shouldered by any other state’s taxpayers. Astonishingly, that tab represents a whopping 8 percent of the state’s total personal income.

As to the benefits of smart growth, abundant national research makes the point: Getting a handle on sprawl can save taxpayers money.

Research by the Real Estate Research Corp. and others documents that compact growth can be as much as 70 percent cheaper for governments than equivalent volumes of scattered growth. It simply costs less to provide infrastructure (such as streets, schools, flood control or sewers) and often services (such as police or fire protection) to denser, more contiguous households than to far-flung, low-density communities.

Counties in the state of Kentucky provide an example. There, the University of Kentucky recently compared the costs of government in 10 counties. This assessment revealed that the costs for police, fire and school services were consistently lower in counties whose growth was concentrated in established areas, and highest in counties with highly dispersed growth.

A similar finding in South Carolina puts an even finer point on the kind of benefits that can flow from putting Connecticut’s long-standing development patterns on a more cost-effective footing. There, a study concluded that South Carolina could shave 12 percent off its 20-year road and water/sewer infrastructure tab by utilizing planned development as opposed to “sprawl.”

In view of these realities, the coming years of fiscal stress appear an opportune time for Connecticut leaders – and those of other cash-strapped states – to re-evaluate counterproductive growth patterns.

Doubtless it will remain tough to pass a full-dress land-use reform package such as died in the recent assembly.

Still, the need to reduce inefficiency shows promise of overcoming such traditional hurdles to reform as Connecticut’s intense localism. Now, more than ever, the possibility exists for a new consensus around smart growth that includes fiscal conservatives and suburban officials struggling to keep up with sprawl as well as environmentalists, neighborhood activists, soccer moms and urban mayors. And who knows? Such a moment might even appeal to an intelligent governor with a desire to leave a legacy and inject some fresh thinking into his state’s discourse.

Gov. Rowland would do well, then, to seize these challenging years to promote something more creative than the mindless horse-trading of program cutting and tax increases now underway.

Specifically, Rowland should look north to Massachusetts, where Gov. Romney has dramatically reordered state government around a smart-growth agenda and appointed a smart-growth proponent to reorient the state’s transportation, economic development and housing departments. There in the Bay State, Rowland might find the inspiration to pursue tough reforms to promote regional action, discontinue sprawl-inducing state spending and direct growth back into Connecticut’s crumbling cities.

Otherwise, the governor might want to consider how he might use his own state’s budget straits to restructure Connecticut’s fiscal system in the next few years. After all, fiscal reform that meaningfully reduces Nutmeg State localities’ inordinate dependency on property taxes remains a prerequisite to true land-use reform. Without such reform, Connecticut towns will remain addicted to property tax revenue – and accepting new development in the wrong places.

Bad times are here, in short, yet they’re actually the best time to strike at the environmental and fiscal inefficiency of business-as-usual.

Take it from Gov. Romney’s smart-growth czar, Doug Foy, who recently invoked the words of a British officer when selling his reform agenda to a gathering of Massachusetts business leaders. “Men,” quoted Foy, “we’ve run out of money; now we must learn to think.”

Shouldn’t Connecticut also begin to smarten up?