Suburban Snob Politics Fuels “Smart Growth” Land-Use Movement, by John Carlisle

The national movement to combat the alleged ills of urban sprawl is guilty of false advertising.

Proponents of anti-sprawl policies, often termed “smart growth” policies, portray smart growth as an environmentally-sensitive campaign to protect communities against the alleged ravages of economic progress. In fact, smart growth is often nothing more than a thinly-disguised attempt by well-heeled suburbanites to keep undesirable newcomers from their neighborhoods.

Through smart growth measures such as urban growth boundaries and restrictive zoning practices that inflate housing prices, environmentalists and smart growth advocates shamelessly exploit the selfish desire of some suburbanites to close the gate to less affluent families seeking the American Dream.

This is morally indefensible.

As has been the case since World War II, Americans overwhelmingly prefer the advantages of suburban living to the inner cities or older closer-in suburbs. A survey by the National Association of Home Builders finds that 83% of respondents would rather live in a single-family detached home in an outlying suburb over a townhouse in an urban setting.1 Minority and moderate-income Americans are certainly no exception. Indeed, in recent years, a disproportionate number of new homeowners have been minorities. According to Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies, minorities accounted for 42% of the growth in homeownership between 1994 and 1998.2 The reasons for this allure of the suburbs are varied, but better education, economic opportunity and especially low crime rates are largely considered the explanation. Economists Julie Berry Culen and Steven Levitt calculate that, between 1976 and 1993, a city typically lost one resident for every additional violent crime committed within it.3 It is not hard, for example, to understand the flight of African-Americans from Washington, D.C. to the suburbs when, in 1997, instances of violent crime were six times more frequent in the city than in the suburbs.4

The growing anti-sprawl crusade imperils the significant social and economic gains made by minorities in recent years. Wherever anti-sprawl policies have been aggressively implemented, the cost of housing has soared and diminished low- to moderate-income families’ access to affordable housing. Probably the most significant anti-sprawl policy engendering this housing inflation is the use of urban growth boundaries. An urban growth boundary is a politically-designated line around cities beyond which development is prohibited or significantly curtailed. By forcing new development into the crowded urban area, land for new home construction is automatically reduced – thereby forcing an increase in housing prices.

This is especially apparent in Portland, Oregon, where a strict smart growth program has contributed to a major escalation in the cost of housing. In 1991, Portland was ranked as the 55th most affordable city in America. But, thanks to the rapid rise in housing prices due mainly to the urban growth boundary and other anti-sprawl policies, Portland is now ranked 174th in housing affordability – the second least affordable city in the nation.5 Between 1995 and 1997 alone, more than 80,000 single-family homes became unaffordable due to housing price inflation. In one inner-city Portland neighborhood, home prices doubled between 1990 and 1995 from $41,300 to $83,800, seriously undercutting the chance of moderate- and low-income families to own homes.6

Portland is not the only example of affordable housing lost to anti-sprawl policies. More than 100 cities, counties and regions have adopted some form of an urban growth boundary. After Napa, California implemented an urban growth boundary that resulted in a 74% reduction in residential building permits, the average value of a single-family home in Napa County skyrocketed by 158% to over $373,000.7

Unfortunately, many affluent suburbanites are flocking behind the smart growth banner precisely because of the movement’s track record in removing homeownership from the reach of less affluent families. A case in point is Prince William County, Virginia – a major suburb in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area. In 1998, the Prince William County Supervisors approved the region’s first major slow growth plan. The Prince William plan set aside nearly half of the county land in a “rural crescent” in which future new home construction and other development will only be allowed on ten-acre plots. The result, predictably, is a major increase in land prices. Says one developer, “the downzoning is creating a buying panic… that’s driving land prices up. The building community doesn’t have many places left to build.”8 Another result of the smart growth plan is that six-figure income homebuyers – attracted by the large, secluded lots and gated developments – are moving to the county in droves. Many of these affluent new residents first sought assurances from the county that the land-use restrictions would continue to be enforced once they purchased their homes. They didn’t want to pay $1 million for a home only to see townhouses and fast-food restaurants built near their neighborhoods. Victoria and Ralph Schmidt, for example, who made their fortune in pharmaceuticals and public relations, built a mansion replete with libraries and an art gallery on a 20-acre plot. They moved from their upscale development in New Jersey just to take advantage of Prince William’s guarantee of no development infringing on their space. Said Mrs. Schmidt, “We bought protection.” Fellow Prince William newcomer Greg Gorham, a software developer, moved from another Virginia suburb because a builder constructed 20 townhouses on land next to him. “That was the thing I really didn’t want to have happen to me again,” said Gorham.9

Some African-American property owners have a less charitable opinion of the impact of smart growth policies on their economic fortunes. LaVerne Neal, 70, owns a 75-acre plot of fertile farmland in Lower Richland, South Carolina – a predominantly black farming community southeast of Columbia. Her late husband’s grandfather purchased the land 130 years ago after being freed from slavery. Back then, the farm was just a swamp. But after generations of hard work, Neal’s family turned it into a profitable farm that harvests corn, cotton and trees. Although much of this development occurred during segregation, Neal says “at least nobody messed with our land. If I could pay my taxes, I didn’t have to worry about my land.”10

That was before the arrival of the smart growth crusade. The Neals and other Lower Richland residents are worried that Richland County’s newly-adopted anti-sprawl program will cause them to lose their land. The plan, called Richland County’s 2020 Town and Country Vision plan, was unanimously adopted by the bipartisan county council as a way to control sprawl. The plan includes an especially onerous provision that prohibits almost all of the county’s prime farmland from being developed. In addition, the plan may prevent the Neals and other farmers from harvesting their trees, a major crop for Lower Richland farmers. Farmers may also be required to set aside portions of their land for hiking and bike trails.11

LaVerne Neal doesn’t like the plan at all as she believes it will destroy her ability to make a living off her 130-year-old farm. Says Neal, “I don’t like the idea of them controlling what I can do with my land. I think if I struggled, I ought to be the one to make the decision of what I’m going to do with my land.” Neal’s sentiments are echoed by other Lower Richland residents who say the plan would reduce the value of their property just as demand for it is rising. Neal’s son, Joe, a Baptist minister and Democratic state representative, says, “This is a net loss of wealth for poor people. As far as I’m concerned, this is a taking.”12

Smart growth proponents, on the other hand, cannot say enough good things about the Richland County plan. Architect Andres Duany, who popularized the New Urbanism style of neighborhood planning that is held up as the alternative to suburbia, called it “a first-rate plan.” Environmentalists claim that farmers who protest that they can’t sell their land under the plan are not real farmers and that their views need not be taken into account. Dell Isham, head of South Carolina’s chapter of the Sierra Club, says, “For the true farmer, it’s good. If it’s the person who wants to develop and subdivide their farmland, it’s not to their advantage.” Apparently, according to the Sierra Club, the Neals, who have owned and farmed their land for 130 years, and other predominantly black farmers in Richland County who have the temerity to want to sell their land, are not “true farmers.”13

Lower Richland residents are not taking this lying down. The Lower Richland NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union are considering a lawsuit against Richland County, claiming that the plan violates the U.S. Constitution’s Fifth Amendment guarantee that the government cannot take land for public use without just compensation.14

Writing about the Lower Richland case in The Nation, William Steif, a self-described liberal, warns Americans should beware when they hear the urban sprawl term leveled by smart growth advocates. “It is an excuse to do all sorts of things that may not be very nice,” wrote Steif. “The vagueness of the term really allows you to do damn near anything.”15

Anti-sprawl policies mean many things to many people. To environmentalists who generally disdain any sort of economic development, it is a useful weapon in their ongoing campaign against private property rights. To some short-sighted affluent suburbanites, it is the perfect way to pull up the proverbial drawbridge and not allow anyone else to share in what they have. But to the millions of Americans still pursuing the promise of homeownership, a safe community and economic improvement – such as the Neals – anti-sprawl policies are an obstacle (and sometimes an illegal one) to their right to seek prosperity.


John K. Carlisle is director of The National Center for Public Policy Research’s Environmental Policy Task Force. 


1 “Consumer Survey on Growth Issues,” National Association of Home Builders, Washington, DC, April 1999.

2 “In Search of ‘Livability,'” Innovation Briefs, Vol. 10, No. 5, Urban Mobility Corporation, Washington, DC, Sept/Oct 1999.

3 Pietro Nivola, “Laws of the Landscape: How Policies Shape Cities in Europe and America,” Brookings Institution, Washington, DC, 1999.

4 Ibid.

5 Dr. Howard Baetjer, Jr., “Why ‘Smart Growth’ is ‘Not-Smart Economics,'” Studies in Social Cost, Regulation, and the Environment, No. 4, Institute for Research on the Economics of Taxation, Washington, DC, September 2000.

6 Dr. Samuel Staley and Dr. Gerard Mildner, “Urban-Growth Boundaries and Housing Affordability: Lessons from Portland,” Policy Brief, No. 11, Reason Public Policy Institute, Los Angeles, California, October 1999.

7 Ibid.

8 Lisa Rein, “Well-to-Do Discover Prince William,” The Washington Post, October 11, 2000.

9 Ibid.

10 John Berlau, “Smart Growth is More Than Slogan; It’s a Threat to Landowners’ Rights,” Investor’s Business Daily, July 25, 2000.

11 Ibid.

12 Ibid.

13 Ibid.

14 Ibid.

15 Ibid.

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