“The War on Sprawl”

A week or two I posted an item on Gov. Timothy M. Kaine’s appointment of a “sub-cabinet” to promote smart growth. Not surprisingly, no one in the Mainstream Media has picked up on this initiative. Coping with growth is one of the two or three hottest challenges facing Virginia, and Gov. Kaine explicitly endorses a “smart growth” agenda, going so far as to organize his cabinet around the issue, and no one sees a story?

Well, I think it’s pretty darned significant. And, as Kaine tries to get buy-in for his transportation plan, it’s not within a Business As Usual context, it’s within a context of trying to change Virginia’s human settlement patterns. That’s why, on the first day of the special transportation session, I decided to write, “The War on Sprawl,” which expands upon the original blog post. (Apologies to EMR: I know that “sprawl” is a core confusing word, and I would have entitled the column, “The War on Dysfunctional Human Settlement Patterns,” but the phrase did not roll off the tongue.)

Kaine’s effort is a noble one, although, as I argue in the column, it probably won’t accomplish much. The sub-cabinet will be coordinating the expenditure of “discretionary” funds, which may amount to tens of millions of dollars a year. But, as Lisa Guthrie, executive director of the Virginia League of Conservation Voters, points out, transportation expenditures, the major driver of sprawl, measure in the billions of dollars. Transportation spending is where the action is.

Still, it is important to realize that the state cab affect human settlement patterns in positive ways: by promoting companies to locate jobs where they will contribute to a balance of jobs, housing and amenities; by stimulating the development of housing where they will contribute to a balance; by locating state facilities where they contribute to urban redevelopment and revitalization; and by choosing wisely where to preserve open land.

It makes sense for Kaine’s cabinet to coordinate these expenditures. Of course, it makes even more sense for them to coordinate them with local governments, which are responsible for planning land use, infrastructure and public services. Alas, there is no mechanism for doing so.

When I discussed that last issue with L. Preston Bryant, Jr., the secretary of natural resources and chairman of the sub-cabinet, he agreed. “The whole interworking between state and local goverments could stand a good overhaul,” he said.

Bryant cited the books, “Cities with Suburbs,” by David Rusk, which highlights the virtues of cities with “elastic boundaries” as opposed to Virginia’s “inelastic” ones. He likes the idea of city boundaries that expand and retract with the population, evening out taxes across the metro area, and avoiding the trap of concentrating poverty in the inner cities.

But Fundamental Change in governance structures won’t occur in the 18 months that Kaine has left, and it probably can’t occur in a single gubernatorial administration, Bryant observes. It might take a two-term governor to accomplish a goal that ambitious.

What Kaine has done, Bryant contends, is focused more attention than any previous governor on the critical importance of human settlement patterns. It’s hard to argue with that.

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  1. Anonymous Avatar

    We think we agree with Preston Bryant as to the desirability of having city boundaries that can expand and contract with the population.

    But given the current “Independent City” and the annexation concept as it exists in Virginia, it would take one heck of a lot more than a two term governor to accomlish that!

    We hope that we are wrong.

    Ben There
    Don That

  2. E M Risse Avatar
    E M Risse

    Jim Bacon:

    “Does not roll off the tongue…”

    Neither does “smoking causes lung cancer” but it gets the message across.

    With respect to Core Confusing Words the trick is not to slavishly use the words and phrases we have developed but to just avoid using the ones that everyone knows are confusing.

    Come up with a new word or phrase that does roll off the tongue and makes the issue clear.


  3. E M Risse Avatar
    E M Risse

    Oh yes,

    Otherwise a good post :>)


  4. Paul H Avatar

    It’s way too late to close this barn door. A half century of sprawl/Dillon Rule has devestated both the urban and the rural. We ripped up mass transportation coast to coast and built a multi trillion dollar infrastructure based on the automobile. The only real curb on the burbs now is the price of gasoline.

    Where has Kaine been the last 2 1/2 years? I haven’t heard a solitary mention of government reform. I would have expected more from a former Mayor who knows first hand the crippling effects of the Dillon Rule on cities and Richmond in particular.

  5. Anonymous Avatar

    Anti-sprawl (or pro-non-dysfunctional settlement patterns for EMR) has become an ideology without thought. It’s the functional equivalent of the Tysons Land Use Task Force. Density, especially New York City-style density) will fix everything.

    And ethanol was also expected to fix the gasoline situation.

    I would certainly agree that, for some factors, dense development can create efficiencies. It’s probably much cheaper for Dominion Power to serve 1000 customers in an urban environment than it would be to serve 1000 customers in a very rural setting. But it might be more expensive to build 10 miles of roadways in the urban environment than it would be to build 10 miles of road in a rural one. Tysons Corner will certainly prove that massive urbanization of an existing suburban location will create likely unaffordable costs for public facilities.

    All development needs supporting public facilities. It would be very helpful to our elected officials were UVA, George Mason, VT or some other fine institution to conduct an honest study of the costs of development in terms of infrastructure and to show how those costs might vary by the type or location of such development. But such a study would also make it more difficult for one, both or all sides to attempt to manipulate the political process.

    Virginia and likely other states have become places where private parties manipulate the process for gain in the guise of public benefit. Urbanize Warrenton. It would be easier and less costly to do than to urbanize Tysons Corner.


  6. Anonymous Avatar

    I feel the same as TMT. There is a lot of this pro density crap that makes no sense whatsoever, beyond a certain point.

    If you want to limit sewer transmission then you centrally locate around the sewage treatment plant, preferentially on the uphill side. But if you want to liit water transmissnion then yu preferentially locate near the source, preferentially on the downhill side, and to minimize electric losses you locate near the electric plant, preferentially upwind. Then you still need to minimize transportation needs and maximize all the other utilities, like schools, entertainment, greenspace, etc.

    It isn’t exactly elementary linear programming.

    I think TMT is right about Warrenton vs Tysons. Too bad Warrenton had the foresight to forstall that by ripping out their train station.


  7. Paul H Avatar

    It isn’t exactly elementary linear programming

    Is that anything like rocket science?

  8. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    density in a place like Fredericksburg (or Warrenton)… or ANY place where the “density” is primarily residential and the residents themselves don’t work locally but instead commute 30, 40 ,50 miles

    is a DIFFERENT kind of density where people actually do live & work within a 10 or 20 miles radius.

    APF is the same issue though in either scenario.

    People who live in Fredericksburg no more want growth that degrades the levels of services than the folks who live in Tysons do or for that matter – the folks who live in Great Falls.

    How much good will it do – if density gets pushed to Fredericksburg instead of happening in Tysons – if the folks who get pushed to Fredericksburg still end up in Tysons during the day?

    In the end – what are the specific adverse impacts of SPRAWL on the existing residents of a place like Tysons?

    It would seem to be that as long as the jobs don’t get pushed to Fredericksburg .. along with the employees then Tysons will still suffer from SPRAWL.


    what exactly would we have Kaine do – to fix this aspect of SPRAWL?

  9. Anonymous Avatar

    Larry – I wholeheartedly agree that development, be it in Fredericksburg, Warrenton, or Tysons Corners requires adequate public facilities or everyone suffers, both long-time residents and new-comers.

    I’ve always thought that there are benefits if more good-paying jobs were located in outlying areas. But remember the Tysons landowners freeked out when the FBI pulled some of its operations from Tysons to Manassas.

    I have no problem with landowners at Tysons competing vigorously for jobs and businesses. That’s competition. Office upgrades, lower rent, better amenities. But my problem comes when they try to get me to pay for their efforts through boondoggles like rail through Tysons, or lobby for higher taxes so that employees can continue to drive from Fredericksburg and Warren.

    Ray has been essentially correct when he’s argued for more places, but even those places need adequate public facilities.


  10. “Density, especially New York City-style density) will fix everything.”

    I’m sure you know that NYC is not the only example of smart growth. Smart growth is simply pre-WWII development. It could be a metropolis like Manhattan or it could be a small town like Orange, VA. It could even be a neighborhood. It simply means having the ability to walk or bike to a good number of daily errands, and having the option of sensible public transportation to go between said developments. It’s really nothing strange. Strange is putting up with mile after mile of crappy strip malls in Generica.

  11. Anonymous Avatar

    Mark, much of my cynicism comes from observing the Tysons Land Use Task Force’s work. The smart growthers are proposing: 1) to move as much affordable/work force housing outside Tysons as possible because of high land and construction costs; and 2) to reduce the number and size of parks and open space within Tysons so as not to burden the landowners. Thus, under smart growth, lower income workers will continue to need to drive to Tysons, and Tysons residents will need to drive to parks and recreational facilities outside Tysons.

    This is yet one more land use farce from Fairfax County. Hopefully, the Planning Commission and BoS will reject it.


  12. Groveton Avatar

    TMT –

    Do you believe that John Foust understands the issues around Tysons development? I had pretty high hopes for Foust but he seems to have gone “radio silent”. I also understand that Hunter Mill and Providence would have to be considered in any thoughts about Tysons Corner. I am just wondering what you think of the Dranseville Supervisor vis-a-vis congestion, settlement, etc.

  13. Anonymous Avatar

    “It isn’t exactly elementary linear programming

    Is that anything like rocket science?”

    Linear programming is a mathematical technique used to work out the best overall option mix when you have many resources producing different results, or make trade offs when you have limited resources.

    For example, you have six kinds of machine tools that can produce parts at different rates. You have four proucts that use different numbers of parts. How many of each product should you make in order to keep all the machine tools operating at maximum capacity? If the products sell for different prices, what is the optimum mix to get you the most profit with the minimum downtime for the machines?

    Sometimes you can’t get an exact answer, but you can set boundaries on the feasible answers. leanear programming deals with th case in which you need to solve multiple simultaneous equations and the functions are linear.

    It gets more difficult when the equations are nonlinear. In rocket science a typical problem is that you get higher burn rates at higher pressure, and hence more speed. But higher pressures mean you need a heavier motor case, which cuts down on the fuel you can carry.

    A lot of social problems involve multiple competing interests with different outputs and different required inputs. The problem is to maximize the benefits and minimize the waste. With hundreds of thousands of variables and relationships, the problem is practically unsolvable, so far.

    Massively parallel computer processing and huge data sets is allowing parts of the problem to be elucidated as never before.

    If we ever get the answer, will we really want to know?


  14. Anonymous Avatar

    is a DIFFERENT kind of density where people actually do live & work within a 10 or 20 miles radius.

    I think the average commute time is something like 27 minutes. Call it 30 minutes. At 40 mph average speed thats only 20 miles.

    Obviously something is wrong.

    It isn’t entirely how far you drive that is the problem. Distance doesn’t cause congestion, convergence does.

    If you quadruple the density and cut driving in half, you will still have more miles driven per square mile, and hence more congestion.

    If you increase the density or desirability of attractors like jobs, sprots events or concerts, you willl drw from a wider area: it is worth more to drive farther. But since you haven’t increased the local area where the attractor is, you have more congestion.

    How far you drive is only part of the congestion problem.


  15. Anonymous Avatar

    A problem in Warrenton is that Culpeper is growing. Warrenton and FAuquier have been fighting growth, but now it is going to be imposed on them from outside – and they won’t have the local revenue to solve any of the problems.

    Should the Culpeper “users” help pay for traffic improvements through Warrenton?

  16. Anonymous Avatar

    “Ray has been essentially correct when he’s argued for more places, but even those places need adequate public facilities.”

    Thank you.

    I think Marshall is a good example of APF failure. After decades of resisitance, Marshall is finally getting a new water supply. But, it appears that they are putting in only enough for current and immediate future needs, based on a conservative growth plan.

    This is a place with two exits to I-66. It could easily be larger than Manassas. Woodstock, which hols a similar location on I-81 appears to have grown much faster than Marshall, and probably lack of adequat town water supply is one reason.

    Now, they will build a new water supply, and it will be maxed out as soon as it is built. Then the county will wring their hands for another thirty years, claiming, we don’t have APF.

    I’m not hopeful we will get new places with APF this way.


  17. Anonymous Avatar

    Groveton – It’s my understanding that the Fairfax County supervisors are generally waiting for the Task Force to make its recommendations, although a number of people on all sides of the issue have been talking with them. I feel that the general failure of the Task Force to act reasonably about growth, its abject rejection of any advice from either county staff or the consultants to place reasonable limits on new density; and its general hostility to community groups has hurt it with a number of supervisors. But time will tell.

    I believe that John Foust understands the real issues and has generally been supportive of community requests. Supervisor Linda Smyth has lately moved some from her position as a cheerleader for development to a bit of a skeptic. Supervisor Cathy Hudgins has generally be unplugged, which has hurt Vienna residents.

    The bulk of the damage to the Task Force’s credibility has come from chair Clark Tyler’s failure to control its excesses and from Bill Lecos’ perceived bullying of anyone who attempts to think. Should the Task Force’s report be rejected, Tyler and Lecos are prime contributors.

    A number of community groups have assembled analyses that shred most of the work that the Task Force is doing. While the final result is still uncertain, the small P political situation will become very ugly before its over.


  18. TMT — I agree that developers have many ways of using the term “smart growth” but warping the result into some sort of monstrosity.

    Seems to me like no one builds affordable housing anywhere anymore, dense development or not. Not to beat the drum too much, but most smart growth principles call for a mixture of price levels in the development area. So, to not offer that would be a misstep.

  19. Anonymous Avatar

    Mark – I agree fully with you. If one wants the retail clerks at Macy’s to walk to work, there needs to be attractive and affordable housing at Tysons Corner.

    But many of the landowners, most especially the younger ones, simply do not care whether Tysons works or not. They want density to sell to someone else — either in a quick property flip or in, preferably, an office building. For all their rhetoric, most owners would just as soon avoid all housing at Tysons — except for a few $2 million condos sold to empty nesters — in favor of more offices.

    This would be fine but for the fact that it’s being done with taxpayer and commuter subsidies to Dulles Rail and flies in the face of all their public interest rhetoric. Many of these folks are no different from the subprime mortgage and oil futures speculators.

    Land use planning in Fairfax County is a farce.


  20. Anonymous Avatar

    “smart growth principles call for a mixture of price levels in the development area.”

    But they don’t say how the developer is supposed to do that, when they are busy tying his hands in every other respect.

    Smart grwoth principles are divorced from economics.


  21. Anonymous Avatar

    “This would be fine but for the fact that it’s being done with taxpayer and commuter subsidies to Dulles Rail and flies in the face of all their public interest rhetoric.”


    What IS the public interest?


  22. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    The opposite of private interest?

  23. Anonymous Avatar

    No, Larry, it is the sum of the private interests, after public costs have been paid.

    While public property and services have value, you assume that they are in place to enhance the interests of the citizenry, and so their value accrues to private interests, pro rata.


  24. Groveton Avatar


    You know that certain sets of equations have no maximum or minimum point. If you converted the transportation needs and willingness to pay of Virginia’s regions into equations, I think the feasible region would be empty. The constraints contradict each other. Alternately, the people in RoVA might say that NoVA’s equations are unbounded on the cost side. The maximum point is infinity. Either way, there are some problems that cannot be solved by LP.

    As far as I can tell, smart growth = government intervention. It seems to me that if there wasn’t council housing in London there would be no affordable housing. If the government didn’t prohibit development in the Green Belt it would look like any American suburb. In fact, the restrictions on development have reduced the supply of “developable” land. This, in turn, has increased the costs of housing to the point that affordable housing is only available through taxpayer subsidy.

    Now comes the part that will shock some on this board …

    So what?

    The income gap in London has created a situation where there must be something of a transfer of wealth in the form of council housing (paid by taxes) in order for affordable housing to exist.

    My glass gets frosted by the American pseudo-conservatives who maintain that there is no cost to any of their policies. If government would just go away then there would be superlative human development patterns with plenty of affordable housing. Ridiculous. If government went away there would be more speculation, more profit taking, more sprawl, etc.

    The real “free lunch” crowd is the current Republican Party with their “change without cost” philosophy.

    The real “free lunch” crowd is the current Republican Party with their “growth through deficit” philosophy.

    The real “free lunch” crowd is the Bush Administration and their vastly expanded federal government.

    Tim Kaine is trying. That’s more than I can say for the Republicans in the General Assembly.

  25. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    re: public interest, what we need vs what we should be paying

    If someone would specify what NoVa needs for a reasonably functioning transportation system – and a price tag for it.. then we could have a discussion about how much MORE to pay – and how.

    But what we have instead, is a “campaign” that says that we don’t have a well functioning transportation network and we just need to be paying more.

    We don’t need to have a price tag and a goal – just higher taxes.

    i.e. – the classic – “throw more money at it and sooner or latter it’s bound to get better”

    That’s why I ask – those who support raising the gas tax (or ANY taxes) – how much is needed?

    and I’m amazed at the answers – like – “probably at least 50 cents”

    and how much of the congestion will we buy down for 50 cents?

    ….. and the answer is silence

    I think this is how the public feels.

    “what do I get if I pay more”

  26. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    re: sprawl and the public interest

    I found this to be interesting:

    “The Dominion plant’s fuel would come largely from Appalachia, but most of its electricity would not stay in that area. [the proposed Wise County plant]

    Instead, Dominion officials said much of the electrical power would be sent more than 375 miles away, to highly wired Northern Virginia. The company’s demand for electricity is expected to grow 20 percent in 10 years, with much of that coming from the Washington area.


    My question to the Smart Growthers is why should power for NoVa be generated 375 miles away instead of locally or 50 or 100 miles away?

    I cannot understand why increased density – that will require more and more power generated by blasting off the tops of mountains 375 miles away is a better kind of “settlement pattern”.

    Is this is not a location specific subsidy – what it?

  27. Anonymous Avatar

    Pay more for what? For more schemes to help a few well-placed investors maximize their holdings, while traffic conditions continue to deteriorate.

    I think I proposed a new social contract. For $x more in taxes, traffic on A, B & C will improve from LOS D to LOS and stay that way for five years. Right!

    It’s a sham.


  28. Anonymous Avatar

    “If you converted the transportation needs and willingness to pay of Virginia’s regions into equations, I think the feasible region would be empty.”

    I like it. The greatest good for the least cost is where the benefit curve and demand curve cross. You are saying there is no demand, because there is no willingness to pay?

    Maybe, but the problem is that you willpay even if you don’t pay. TTI says the price is $1089 per driver per year.

    We face reality every day, and feasible or not, (EMR claims it is not) it is the solution we face. If we can’t model it, we haven’t all the variables.

    If we model it and don’t like the answer, then we have an escape from reality.


  29. Anonymous Avatar

    If you generated it 50 or 70 miles away you would still blast the tops off the mountains, only now you would truck them 300 miles.

    Electrical transmission costs are high, but they are cheap compared to the alternative.

    The other alternative is 55,000 wind turbines, and then you still need coal for backup.


  30. Anonymous Avatar

    “My glass gets frosted by the American pseudo-conservatives who maintain that there is no cost to any of their policies. “

    Me too.

    But it isn’t only the pseudo conservatives. Selling your proposed policies as if they were “free, no cost” is pretty common.

    It falls inn the same category of reasoning as the “new, large quart size”. Deceptive.


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