I read this great article in Time earlier this week. It’s a brief primer for anyone who wants to hear about how so much of today’s sprawling suburban and commercial development that is touted as economic growth has the opposite effect in the long run. Chuck Marohn is a former municipal planner turned evangelist for Smart Growth.
I heard Chuck Marohn speak about a year and a half ago, and he converted me. The bottom line of Smart Growth is that communities must be sustainable, and new development far removed from existing population and infrastructure is typically not sustainable. All municipal officials should be doing long-term cost/benefit analyses for any new development projects they are considering approving, and private development should not be subsidized by public funds unless there is sufficient long-term pubic benefit.
Unchecked development in the present, sprawling into former farm fields, is not the path to future long-term prosperity. Developers who receive subsidies from state or local governments – whether it’s to extend a sewer line or road widening and traffic signalization – are typically no longer in town to share maintenance costs after the project is built out and sold. They are not around to share in the replacement costs of that new public infrastructure when it’s time to replace the first-generation structures. And because the long-term costs were not considered up front, the tax payers must pay perpetually for those project-specific improvements. It's amazing that more fiscal conservatives have not figured out that sprawl is fiscally unsustainability.
Where I live, in Lower Macungie Township, PA, our Planning Commission and former Board of Supervisors seemingly used to give developers almost anything they asked. Utility concessions, road improvements and stormwater infrastructure were all fair game. Accepting dedications of streets in new residential developments or industrial parks is nothing unusual in most areas, even though the municipality then becomes liable for all repairs, repaving and snow removal. And there is a public safety argument there, because emergency services vehicles need to reliably be able to get to emergencies in these developments.
Stormwater basin in Lower Macungie Townshp, PA
(photo by Lower Macungie Township)
Stormwater management is one thing that local governments certainly should not be subsidizing for developers. Until recently, our municipal government was accepting ownership and liability for stormwater infrastructure from developers. In fact, as of last Fall, out of 88 stormwater basins on record in the township, Lower Macungie township was fully responsible for 23 stormwater basins, with another 23 basins previously agreed to be dedicated to the township upon completion of the projects and transfer of the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits from the respective developers. So the Lower Macungie taxpayers are on the hook to fund the perpetual maintenance on these stormwater facilities.
Four Seasons Development in Lower Macungie.
Development is not connected to surrounding
neighborhoods, but stormwater basins are
maintained by homeowners association.
(photo by Newton Engineering)
Our current Board of Commissioners has gone on record as saying that, going forward, they will no longer accept new stormwater facilities from developers. That's great, because it means that any new residential, commercial or industrial developments must maintain their own stormwater retention basins. That’s significant for new residential developments, because it means that they will have to form a homeowners association to manage their stormwater facilities and associated liabilities. But municipalities cannot afford to continue to absorb these long-term costs from the developers of subdivisions and the subsequent owners of the resulting parcels.
Emmaus, PA. A classic community with mixed-use areas and
a vibrant,walkable downtown district. (photo credit:
So while my community’s new projects may remain subject to an illogical, Euclidean zoning map and might not be walkable or connected with the existing community in a Smart Growth kind of way, we can demand that new development must pass a cost/benefit analysis to ensure that the taxpayers will not be saddled with long-term costs unique to the new project.