Why Conservatives Hate Smart Growth

Wendell Cox
Wendell Cox

by James A. Bacon

Last week I attended the annual meeting of the American Dream Coalition in Washington, D.C., which hosted some of the leading conservative and free-market thinkers in the fields of transportation, land use and urbanism. These are people with whom I normally feel a philosophical affinity. But there was one thing I couldn’t understand. Why is conservatism’s intellectual elite so hostile to the idea of smart growth? I hoped to find out why.

The answer, I discovered, is pretty simple: Conservatives equate smart growth with intrusive government intervention in the economy, with regulations, subsidies and  boondoggles. They look at out-of-control spending on mass transit projects that will never pay their own way, and they see smart growth. They look at urban growth boundaries in Portland, and they see smart growth. They look at California land use plans designed to substitute single-family houses with apartment complexes, and they see smart growth. They listen to environmentalists who want to re-engineer the economy to stave off global warming, and they hear smart growth. They listen to “social justice” advocates who want to use urban planning to redistribute wealth, and they hear smart growth.

If spending big bucks on environmental and social engineering is bad, then the opposite must be good. Conservatives find themselves defending auto-oriented development patterns in suburbia. What other people refer to derisively as “sprawl” they see as the American dream.

One of the most forceful advocates for this way of thinking is Wendell Cox, a tall man with a physically commanding presence and a booming voice. He describes “cities” (or metropolitan regions) as labor markets to which people migrate to better their codition. In his study of the 450 cities around the world with populations of one million or more, he finds that “sprawl” is a universal phenomenon. “It happens everywhere,” he said. “Addis Ababa. Djakarta. Mumbai. You find the same trend in every city. It’s the natural way cities grow.”

Cox criticized growth-management policies that restrict the supply of developable land, create housing shortages and drive up the cost of renting or buying a home. Housing, he notes, is the largest single item of household consumption and high costs are especially punishing to the poor and working classes. In that paragon of smart growth, Portland, housing prices in high-poverty areas climbed between 1999 and 2009 at almost double the rate (65%) of the overall market (35%), he says. A similar pattern prevails in other cities with restrictive policies.

Cox also applies a withering eye to mass transit. “Trains are great for serving downtown,” but a majority of jobs have moved outside the urban core, and people need cars to get around. Building roads in the suburbs has served Americans well, he says. “The U.S. has the best work-trip travel times in the world.” The average U.S. commute, predominantly by car, is 25 minutes. Compare that to 34 minutes in Australia, 40 minutes for many East Asian cities, and 46 minutes for super-dense, mass transit-oriented Hong Kong.

These and other points made during the American Dream Conference largely square with my observations. But I part ways in two important regards. First, while conservative intellectuals are spot-on in their critique of mass transit subsidies, they are blind to subsidies for roads and highways. While they hit the bulls-eye in their critique of land use restrictions, they ignore the systemic subsidies for green-field development. Their critique runs only one way. Second, I take issue with the way they identify intrusive government policy with smart growth, rather than calling it what it is — intrusive government policy.

To my mind, smart growth can be broken down into four broad propositions: (1) the pattern and density of development has a tremendous impact on the prosperity, livability and fiscal sustainability of our metropolitan regions; (2) the post-World War II pattern of disconnected, low-density, suburban-oriented development was largely the result of government interventions in the marketplace at the federal, state and local levels, (3) that pattern is increasingly dysfunctional, creating congestion and driving up the costs and liabilities of government; and (4) while many people prefer auto-oriented communities, there is a pent-up demand for walkable urbanism with access to mass transit.

There is no denying that many leftists and liberals have hitched their agendas — from saving the planet from Global Warming to redistributing wealth from affluent suburban jurisdictions to poverty-stricken inner cities — to the smart growth wagon. But smart growth covers a wide spectrum of views. Take, for example, the New Urbanists who espouse compact, walkable human-scale development reminiscent of the early 20th century. New Urbanists have suffused the broader smart growth movement with much of their thinking. Yet they are agnostic about where to build — the suburbs, exurbs, inner city, wherever. As architects, builders and developers, they’re all in favor of growth and development. Building stuff is how they make their money and how they see their visions fulfilled. Their prescriptions apply to inner cities, aging suburbs and green-field development alike.

Andres Duany, one of the leading lights in the movement, is perfectly comfortable with the idea that a third or so of all Americans have no interest in New Urbanism communities. He is happy to let them live their lives in peace. What he asks for is a roll-back of zoning codes and other restrictions that prevent him from building the kinds of communities that other people want. Sometimes, he sounds remarkably like a conservative complaining about intrusive, regulatory government.

Conservatives make a strategic error by conflating the smart growth movement with leftist social engineers. They arbitrarily classify potential friends as their enemies. Instead of attacking the smart growth movement, which includes many like-minded people, conservatives should direct their scorn to wasteful subsidies and counter-productive regulations, wherever they may be found.

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49 responses to “Why Conservatives Hate Smart Growth”

  1. funny, I might have expected something like this:

    ” Brookings economist and privatization advocate Clifford Winston looks at US infrastructure a bit differently. He says the lack of market forces in the transportation system — drivers, for instance, don’t have to pay a special toll for driving at the heart of rush — and a government-ownership monopoly means transportation is an underpriced commodity. As he said on a recent EconTalk episode:

    I think that the claims of the infrastructure crisis are grossly overstated, and what we really have is a pricing crisis. And if we can get the prices right, that will do an awful lot to improve the condition and service of our infrastructure. …

    Roads have an artificially low price. Cars are not charged for congestion, so they put pressure on peak capacity. Trucks are not charged efficiently for the damage they do to roads; they pay a gas tax when they really need to pay an explicit charge that reflects the damages they do to roads. This underpricing causes road capacity to fill up, causes the roads to wear out a lot sooner. And it generates a demand for more spending … I say let’s get the prices right.”


    so the American Dream folks are actually in favor of government spending for the things that govt has traditional tax and spent on – roads.

    But what Jim saw, I believe, is the increasing stratification of those who are opposed not to govt spending or intrusive govt – because we tax and spent out the wazoo for roads and nothing could be more “intrusive” than the govt taking private land at govt-rigged low prices for roads.

    It’s no longer really about honest discussions, the American Dream folks are, like many of these groups, increasingly ideological and biased towards what they want – not a truly objective look at policy. They pretend they are free-market but they’re not – if they were, they’d support toll roads and allow the operator to establish true market pricing which would fall heavily on those who use the infrastructure more intensively – and the price of the toll would include the fair willing seller/willing buyer transaction to buy the land.

    you don’t hear anything like this from these folks. why?

    they’re apparently just fine taxing people for roads and having the govt take land.

  2. Larry, actually, the American Dream people *do* talk about tolls. One of the presenters was Robert Poole, with the Reason Foundation. I didn’t write about him because I had so recently written about his recent report (which was the basis for his presentation) in the Rebellion. He’s the guy who wants to pay for repairing and upgrading the Interstate highway system with tolls.

    I also heard some talk about a Vehicle Miles Driven tax.

    Most of these people, I believe, do support a user-fee system for road financing.

    Where I part ways with them is that they seem not to acknowledge the role of subsidized roads in contributing to sprawl. While they do not defend road subsidies, they don’t seem to get worked up in a lather about them the same way they do with rail subsidies.

  3. I cannot see a strong position on tolls from the ADC from some cursory searches. I see where they have speakers but I do not see a policy position.

    but when I hear “user fee system” it usually means a tax – not a toll.

    you say where you part with them – I’d say NOT recognizing that roads are subsidized is a purposeful action – not an accident but I could be convinced otherwise if I saw some policy statements from them on the issue.

    but the ultimate free-market road is a toll road using dynamic pricing and that should satisfy anyone who is opposed to subsidies.

    I’d actually align with the American Dream folks if they strongly supported tolls as the proper way for people to pay for the suburb lifestyle they want.

    by the way , have you seen this:

    ” The justices concluded that the tolls are user fees and not unconstitutional taxes, as a Portsmouth judge had ruled last spring.”


  4. we have about 60,000 households in Spotsylvania. I’d guess that 30,000 are commuters to NoVa.

    We’re just one exurban county of probably 10 or 15 that ring NoVa.

    I cannot for the life of me – “believe” that NoVa could find enough land to convert to 1/4 acre subdivisions to meet the wants of all the folks who commute to exurban counties.

    it’s not an example of a govt that refuses to allow land subdivision to meet market demands, it’s much simpler – is there really enough land in NoVa to convert to traditional subdivisions so that people will not need to commute to exurban counties?

    The American Dream folks seem to like to talk about “myths”. I would consider the idea that NoVa (or any other region) refusing to allow land to be converted to subdivision and therefore causing the mass daily commuting is a myth.

    this is no big mystery. People commute to exurban jurisdictions because land is more plentiful and as a consequence – cheaper and they can get the same nice house in the exurbs for 1/2 what it costs in the core urban regions.

    but what makes that possible is the provisioning of massive interstate-type roads with enough lanes to transport rush hour. The problem is – if such roads are “free” – that growth continues to allocate to the suburbs until the highways are out of capacity – and then the issue becomes how will additional capacity be provided and who will pay.

    Not surprisingly the commuters want the states taxpayers to pay instead of toll roads.

    So … I’m familiar with the American Dream folks but I don’t think I’ve ever heard them say that they support toll roads for adding capacity for exurban commuting.

    If I heard them say that – I’d respect their agenda.

    1. Larry,
      One of the issues is open space. Fairfax County has a goal of, but has not achieved, 10% open space. It sounds good, until one learns the Borough of Manhattan has slightly more than 25% open space, parks, conservation lands and recreational space.

      1. call me a skeptic on those numbers TMT… 1/4 of Manhattan is open space?

        at any rate – this is not just a NoVa issue. SOME People WANT to live in the suburbs.. in virtually all urban centers. it’s not about policies that “force” things except perhaps in Portland’s case.

        1. Not open space. But open space, recreational space (including facilities), parks and conservation lands. I looked it up before I testified to the Fairfax County Planning Commission in response to a proposal by some of the landowners to reduce parks/open space. I was surprised, but that’s what the City of New York has to say about itself.

          1. NYC or just Manhattan – a subset with Central Park?

            when one looks at a map of NoVa – there seem to be a LOT of parks….

            are we talking about NoVa or just Fairfax and if it is not 10% then what is it now?

          2. The data I used, which I don’t have access to where I am today, considered only the Borough of Manhattan, which is slightly larger than the island. Quite a few large parks are in the upper part of the Island. There are lots of parks in Fairfax County, but many areas are underserved.

            DJR – Fairfax County has a policy goal of having at least 10% open space that is preserved from development. The County has also insisted on open space dedications with many rezoning applications. In fact, that is one of the reasons why the County established the “Planned” zoning categories. Development is permitted to be concentrated so as to enable more open space/parks/recreation space. Finally, the County pressures the developers to make this open space public. Open space is a big issue in Fairfax County.

      2. DJRippert Avatar

        The percentage of open space is largely irrelevant. Open space per capita would be more meaningful. How many parks does Highland County (population 2,526, 416 sq mi) need? One, four square mile park would be 1% open space. However, it would more than satisfy 2,500 people.

  5. reed fawell III Avatar
    reed fawell III

    I am a conservative who believes in Conservative Smart Growth which I define as the brand of smart growth that built the Ballston-Roslynn Corridor from the ground up. This derives from my experience building one of the first major office buildings in the R/R corridor, after Arlington county’s abject failure to build a city in Rossyln during the 196o’s/1970’s.

    This initial Rosslyn effort in the the 196o’s/1970’s was not smart growth. It was the disaster. But its painful lessons gave rise to the smart growth that built Arlington County’s new downtown. This construction began in the early 198o’s. The base plans for its development gestated in the 1970’s and were essentially complete by early 1980s, even as a few buildings sprouted.

    During that time it never occurred to me to call the building of Arlington’s downtown conservative smart growth. But now I believe that is fair. I say that because some policies and methods that today are being pushed by some (but far from all) who call themselves smart growth advocates had nothing to do with planning and or building Arlington’s new downtown.

    I too fear the consequences should these new policies gain control of smart growth and those who regulate land-use, transportation and the like. Most particularly I am concerned with the growing push to vastly expand federal regulations and mandates into these local concerns, using the federal government as a tool to gain control and run what should be a local show.

    I also fear the growing corruption and incompetence, political manipulation and expanding power, of quasi private public regional governing agencies into these local development issues. We should not need the FBI to tell us what these rogue regimes are doing with public monies. When using rogue regimes, I am speaking of agencies such as MWAA and MWATA.

    In any case, and on all fronts, we are already beginning to suffer from the rot that too often comes like a ghoul with the imposition of top down mandates driven by politics, ideology and the quest of power, and the chase after public dollars without regard to performance, result, or accountability, or cost versus return, or any other legitimate measure of public benefit.

    My point here is that if these corrosive forces begin to use ideologically driven Smart Growth as a vehicle to gain power and control over local decisions and how people live their everyday lives, we’re in big trouble.

    Conservatives can’t afford to abandon this field. They can’t afford to stand on the sidelines throwing rocks or hurling abstract lightening bolts.

    Conservatives must get hip deep into the mud, and find better solutions. If they do get deep into the game of building where we live in urban and suburban places, they risk being chased out of that arena altogether.

      1. Reed – do you think the American Dream folks would consider the “successful” Arlington that you point t0 – as “govt” directed?

        would the American Dream people agree with and approve of how the “right” Arlington was done?

        My impression is that they would not. They basically see any/all “Smart Growth” as govt-inspired and led – starting with METRO.

        1. reed fawell III Avatar
          reed fawell III

          Interesting question, Larry. I suspect the more they looked into it, the more hard pressed they would be to find fault or a better alternative. And if that is the case, then they should dive in deep and claim the BR version of Smart Growth as their own and work to build more.

          Conservatives in general need to work harder at offering better solutions to problems confronting us, rather than simple opposition.

          “Our” solutions are there and better, I believe, if we work at finding and implementing them. And if these guys reject B/R as a solution, they need to say why and offer a concrete solution and alternative.

          1. reed fawell III Avatar
            reed fawell III

            Larry, re: my earlier Reston and Infrastructure comment.

            My earlier comment should have noted that two fundamental mistakes that doomed Reston financially early on, among others.

            1/ Reston built too much internal road infrastructure per salable unit within Reston early on, and at the same time,

            2/ Reston built too much housing too quick within Reston for the road network outside Reston to support, in terms of capacity and its ability to provide the convenience necessary to attract buyers.

            Poor phasing of unnecessary up front costs combined with self induced slow pace of sales income assured failure. He built a bomb, attached a short fuse, and wrapped both into a Catch 22.

            Its a common mistake and classic trap.

        2. The RB Corridor is a big success. Much of it needed redevelopment and a lot was blighted. The redevelopment took advantage of the underground Orange Line and the existing grid of streets.

          I don’t see development is ideological in nature, but a lot of people do — and in both directions. It pisses me off when a developer tries to tell me I’m getting something from his business plan. Developers develop to make money. Some produce better results than others.

          1. true. But it appears to me that developers leverage their efforts off of publically-provisioned infrastructure and that without that infrastructure – “Smart Growth” would not easily occur.

            Reston seems to be a counter-example to that – that it was not based on public infrastructure beyond the availability of water/sewer.

            but SPRAWL is similar in that true SPRAWL is not really feasible if there is not a larger commuter-capable highway and more often than not a highway built for other purposes is co-opted for commuting – like I-95.

            All the beltways around all of our urban areas where built originally NOT to ACCESS as much as to allow travelers to get around the urban areas on their interstate trips.

            the functional classification of those interstates was principle artery – not “connector” or “collector”.

            the “suburbs” that NoVa had before I-95 was built – followed the primary US highways 1, 29, 50, 7 etc and those roads because of the numerous traffic signals just could not extend but so far into the “burbs” – beyond that the commute was too long.

            the way to protect and preserve interstates co-opted for exurban commuting is to add lanes that are tolled and do not build any more free lanes.

            that allows the traveling public the option – of opting out of the commuter traffic – for a price – without adding capacity to serve more commuting.

            If that is done and it does seem to be the case now in more and more principal arteries that serve urban areas – then it is my view that people who want to commute to the exurbs then will, be paying a fair share of the costs.

          2. reed fawell III Avatar
            reed fawell III

            “I don’t see development is ideological in nature, but a lot of people do — and in both directions.”

            Nobody should see development as ideological anymore than they should be politics as ideological or art or law as ideological. To the degree people see anything as ideological they are climbing the wrong ladder, living in a world that exists in their own heads, or the heads to their leaders.

            Your wrong about grid streets. Tyson’s needs to stop whining about grid streets. They do now have grid street because they chose not to build grid streets, and thereafter refused to correct their very obvious mistakes. My God, we went to the moon 40+ plus years ago and Tysons still can’t build “grid streets.” Tyson’s needs to stop scapegoating and start manning up to its problems.

          3. Reed, I agree with your view that development is not about ideology. It’s about money, markets, choice, quality, and politics. And Tysons will have its grid of streets — eventually.

            There is public benefit with most transportation projects. Whether the benefits outweigh the costs is a question that must be evaluated in every case. But there are also private benefits. And those whose private benefits are enabled by a project must pay an appropriate share of the associated costs.

            Finally, the late real estate developer Chris Walker was a big proponent of the American Dream group. Full disclosure, Chris was a personal friend and a client of a law firm with which I was affiliated. Chris believed in markets, but also that development should not cause a decline in quality of life for existing residents and businesses. He was also active in the Dark Skies movement. I only wish I had gotten to know Chris earlier. He was one helluva guy.

          4. reed fawell III Avatar
            reed fawell III

            TMT –

            Chris Walker, I knew from very early on, there in Reston. He was one of a kind. A real estate developer who marched to his own drummer, a highly independent thinker driven by his incorrigible principals, Chris was into everything, whether athletic, intellectual, and aesthetic, a modern day example of the renaissance man, a model of that humanist developer I wrote about on earlier post.

            Re humanist developer see near second to last comment founds at: https://www.baconsrebellion.com/2013/04/millennials-cars-and-smart-phones.html

          5. reed fawell III Avatar
            reed fawell III

            Larry said: “Reston seems to be a counter-example to that – that it was not based on public infrastructure beyond the availability of water/sewer.”

            This one sentence is factually inaccurate, but it proves your overarching point. Reston initially was a financial failure. The reasons were many as earlier discussed at length on this website. Even Tysons Corner and Dulles airport could not bail Reston out.

            One of its primary problems was lack of road infrastructure. It was hard getting to Reston. Even the big oil companies who bailed out Simon had difficulty keeping Reston afloat until the opening of the toll road in early 80’s. This brought commercial office uses. And better access for residents. A big tolled highway saved Reston.

        3. DJRippert Avatar

          No government, no Metro. No Metro, no R-B corridor. The R-B corridor might be more than Metro like a pound cake is more than flour. However, no flour, no pound cake.

          1. reed fawell III Avatar
            reed fawell III

            No, you do not understand real estate development.

    1. reed fawell III Avatar
      reed fawell III

      Correction to last sentence of 3:55 pm comment above: “If they do NOT get deep into the game of building where we live in urban and suburban places, they risk being chased out of that arena altogether.”

  6. What you are fail to realize is that NoVa workers simply don’t commute far enough. Down here in Tidewater, the low wages cause many to take jobs up there. They work during the week and come home on the week end. During the week the workers live in an apartment or “Town House” and then come down here to their “Country House”. Now where have I heard of that before? Oh yeah, back in the horse and buggy days when the biggest obstacle to the commute was avoiding all the horse pucks on the half a day trip. The solution is to make the wage without making the commute. But that’s a bit too progressive for the 19th century bosses.

    1. so they can afford TWO places to live on those wages and if they live down there they cannot afford any house to live in?

      hmmm.. … is a potential solution to live if a less expensive house – one?

      1. DJRippert Avatar

        It gets into families and kids more than housing. I commuted from Falls Church to Manhattan every week for two years. My company decided it would be more expensive to relocate me for two years than to have me commute. I could have moved to New York but would have uprooted a lot to do so.

  7. Re: the “New Urbanism”.. Cox and his crew call this “New Suburbanism”, as most of these projects are built for yuppie-types on the urban fringe in drive-only suburbia (if we can think outside the NoVA box there is much truth to this). Essentially sanitized versions of the old urbanism, aka central cities. The argument goes that with the exception of the elite metros (DC, NYC, SF, Boston, Seattle, etc.), cities aren’t faring well and those with means (middle/upper class folks) don’t want to live there. Planners meanwhile, under the auspices of smart growth, want to resurrect the old urbanism in the form of growth rules/regulation/regionalism/transfer payments/federal grants/CDBG- any government means to this end. Cox says this is futile and points to demographics showing that folks aren’t interested in the old urbanism; they’removing to regions with greater economic opportunities (and they have no problem with the new suburbanism). The role of government, in this view, is to facilitate and not constrain this mobility. In short: “get the heck out of the way planners”.

    The argument is essentially about demographics and the folly of top-down planning with a preconceived social agenda. A narrow focus on subsidies obscures the larger point they are trying to make, IMO.

  8. I’ve spent a little time on the ADC website (and I’ve been there before) and I do not think they are a true libertarian/free market group.

    they’re like a lot of these groups now days that are defending their interests and in this case it’s the “affordable home” – which includes defending whatever govt policies are currently in place to incentivize single family homes and opposing whatever existing and proposed policies that would threaten home ownership.

    You find little on their website about whether they support mortgage deductions or building taxpayer-funded “free” roads (rather than toll roads).

    They trot out canards about zoning that Jim Bacon has also done which is hard to understand because in a place like NoVa – 2 million people live on rezoned land with individual ownership and private land has been and continues to be developed.

    “growth management” is a term you see in use in exurban localities that are attracting commuters in search of “affordable homes” but the existing infrastructure was never sized for the influx and expanding it is going to be costly – to someone. Developers of exurban residential housing oppose proffers and impact fees so that leaves the existing residents to pay higher taxes to pay for the needed infrastructure. That, then gets reflected at elections where the issue of increasing property taxes – and why comes into play and most existing taxpayers frown on the idea of their taxes going up
    to pay for infrastructure for new commuting residents.

    It’s not really about “growth management” , it’s about who will pay for the needed infrastructure to serve the growth of commuters looking for affordable homes.

    so go look on the American Dream website to see what their opinion is on proffers and impact fees.

    I could not find any but I suspect they categorize such things as threats to affordable home ownership.

    I don’t think any of this is really about efforts in urban or exurban areas to penalize or disincentivize home ownership. It’s about the added infrastructure that is needed to support the growth – and who that cost belongs to.

    The one example where there is seldom the same argument used – is with water and sewer. There are no cries about water/sewer rates being used to limit growth even though the fees to hook up are substantial. Why is that?

    why do the proponents of affordable housing not attack water/sewer the same way they attack other fees for new homes?

    new houses require additional infrastructure – not only water/sewer pipes but treatment facilities and we don’t put these costs on existing residents.

    they go with the new house.

    but schools and roads and libraries and fire/ems stations are no different.

    new growth requires these additional infrastructure and services but where does the money come from to provide them?

    that’s the essential issue on growth of “affordable” housing.

    the “Smart Growth” folks are, in my mind, attempting to use the govt to prevent people from “sprawling” but the question is why?

    we should not be restricting people from choosing where or how to live and as far as I can tell – developers in NoVa seem not restricted in building market-priced residential structures.

    People down my way who support “Smart Growth” are twice wrong.

    first they advocate the govt dictating it but worse, they’re in favor of it so that their “sprawl” home does not have other “sprawl” homes being built behind their house.

    so the advocates of Smart Growth do not really have totally clean hands in my view – either.

    Both sides are not really after market-efficient solutions. They are, instead, defending their interests. The affordable home folks don’t really care what causes increased costs – only that they view that as a penalty to those who want to live that way.

    The Smart Growth folks want MORE than just requiring everyone to pay their fair share for the choices they make. The want choices restricted by govt and that’s just as bad as wanting the govt to continue to promote subsidizes to sprawl.

  9. mbaldwin Avatar

    Perhaps we’d have “smarter growth” if we reckoned and allocated the real costs of that growth to the “growers.” Here in Loudoun County, every new house costs $1.62 in public service/education etc. costs for every $1.00 collected in property taxes. County costs for town houses and wherever transportation and other services are more efficient. But developers, and house buyers, have no incentive to locate where these public costs are lower.

    The old notion of getting the incentives right would yield smarter growth. .

    1. DJRippert Avatar

      Yet Loudoun County has a balanced budget. How does that work? Well, I assume that a relatively few expensive homes pay so much more in property taxes than they consume in county services. So, it’s not true that “every new house costs $1.62 in public service/education etc. costs for every $1.00 collected in property taxes.”. Perhaps you meant, “the average new house …”.

      I also assume that the $1.62 is mostly education. So, I am not sure how different human settlement patterns affect that. A family of four in a condo is the same as a family of four in a townhouse is the same as a family of four in a single family dwelling – for the vast majority of education costs, no?

      I’ve seen some conservatives claiming that they don’t want growth because:

      o Growth costs more than it generates.
      o Growth leads to higher density which leads to liberalism.

      I’ve always wanted to see the math behind the first contention. If a new subdivision necessitates the building of a new elementary school then that new school has a useful life of 50 – 75 years. How do the financials look when depreciation is properly allocated? The people in the new sub-division pay federal income taxes which come back to the states (in some percentage) as transportation grants. Is this counted?

      I mean no disrespect with these comments. I hear the “we can’t afford growth” comments all the time from well meaning people. However, the country is growing. So, we all probably need to look at this matter in more detail.

  10. An interesting approach to “affordable housing” is the proposal to amend Fairfax County’s zoning ordinance to permit the construction of low-rent Residential Studio Units (RSUs) in most areas of the county. I’ve been working on the issue. The biggest bone of contention is: Where can these units be built? Can they be constructed in relative low-density residential zones (e.g., up to R-20 (20 dwellings per acre), as well as in commercial, high density residential, industrial or planned? As I recall, some six to seven other Virginia counties have allowed them, but not in low density residential zones. Most other counties, in southern and central Virginia, have authorized RSUs to address short-term homelessness. Fairfax County’s affordable housing advocates want more options, including low density residential zones. County residents are up in arms. The proposal has been sent to the Planning Commission for further study. My take is that the proposal will be scaled back to look more like zoning laws in other spots of the County. No taxpayer money would be spent on these buildings.

  11. RVAGates Avatar

    We need more conservatives like Jim Bacon. True conservatives support better planning as a way to reduce government waste. True conservatives acknowledge that the most heavily-subsidized form of transportation is vehicular travel.

  12. mbaldwin Avatar

    TMT points out a common problem, I believe. Our local town council of rejected having more efficient and less costly town houses within in the in-town development they authorized. In part they responded to the objections of the single-family home residents to inviting the less well-off in their neighborhoods, along with their fear — I believe groundless — of lowering values of their Ryan homes. Absent town regulations, the developer would have built the town houses and found a ready market. Government “intrusion” isn’t just federal, although at the local level it may more readily reflect voter preferences, even if not “smart.”

    1. DJRippert Avatar

      Will the town homes cover their costs? Remember that education is the biggest cost to cover at the local level. A $350,000 town home paying one percent property tax per year generates $3,500 per year. That’s about one third of one public school student.

      The fundamental equations that smart growthers seem to ignore are:

      Smart growth = Density = high taxes.
      Smart growth = Density = high cost of living.
      High taxes + high cost of living = demand for exurban sprawl.

      I’d be happy to see some broad based and systematic data to refute this.

  13. re: the costs of growth.

    DJ – what is the property tax in Loudoun and how many times has it increased in the last decade?

    and what are the level of services

    there are three ways that growth can pay for itself:

    1. – proffers and impact fees to pay for the pro-rata costs of schools, fire and rescue, etc

    2. – higher taxes on everyone

    3. – degraded levels of services.

    In Va – one of the biggest degradations in Va is roads – which just get more and more congested despite gasoline taxes. Localities can and do make
    land-use decisions without regard to the costs to the transportation network.

    with schools, it goes like this: new growth is approved. A few years later, the excess capacity has been consumed and a new school(s) is needed and it will cost – more than the current taxes can acommodate because they have not yet paid off the previous school loans.

    so a tax increase is needed -and everyone – new residents and existing residents have to pay it.

    if growth continues – another school is needed – and long before the bonds are paid off for the prior schools… and taxes go up again.

    so the more growth you have the higher the taxes have to go – if you are not collecting adequate proffers ahead of time.

    but this would be the case no matter whether in NoVa or the exurbs like Loudoun.

    the difference is that growth occurs at a much slower tempo in big areas so accommodating the increased costs can be done without tax increases.

    but in exurbs that smaller but growing fast, then the tempo is faster – and you cannot grow fast without more money.

    but what does any of this have to do with the perceived need for Smart Growth?

    why does growth in Loudoun and Spotsylvania tell us that we need Smart Growth?

  14. mbaldwin Avatar

    No, DJR, the town houses wouldn’t pay all their costs, and they offer no growth-cost panacea, but school costs may be less with the attraction of retired couples, or childless couples not otherwise attracted to the Ryan homes.

    Besides the full costs of the new schools required, their operating costs never get paid for by developers, nor, of course, the homeowners. Meanwhile our supervisors too often ignore that continuing chain of events Larryg describes, even as they disingenuously campaign for lower tax rates.

    Let’s see how rational are today’s election results.

    1. DJRippert Avatar

      I think you are on the right track. A locality needs to think in terms of a portfolio of residents. Some are going to pay more than they cost and some are going to cost more than they pay. The trick is to maintain some level of balance over time.

      Anybody without kids in the house is probably going to pay more than they cost. So, young adults and retirees are pretty good residents. How do you attract this type of resident?

      Young adults need compact, relatively affordable housing. Young adults want a place where they can walk to restaurants and bars and enjoy the nightlife. A locality can encourage this kind of environment by simply extending the noise limits until quite late on Friday and Saturday nights. Allow outdoor bands to play. Make liquor licenses relatively easy to get. I’ve seen this in New Orleans, Memphis and Louisville.

      Retirees want easy access to medical care. So, you bend over backwards for hospitals. Make it easy for doctors to have their offices near the hospitals. Encourage compact, high density housing near the hospitals. Provide active police patrols. Open the public schools in the evening for continuing education.

      Finally, government must encourage the de-population of areas that are no longer economically viable. People must be encouraged to re-locate to where the jobs exist and they can be working, tax-paying citizens. Americans have no right to “live wherever they want at the expense of others”. People who live in areas that can’t fund their public services ought to have three choices:

      o Improve the economic environment and build the tax base
      o Live with fewer / degraded public services
      o Move

      1. accurate Avatar

        “Finally, government must encourage the de-population of areas that are no longer economically viable. People must be encouraged to re-locate to where the jobs exist and they can be working, tax-paying citizens.”

        Well, sort of a good idea, but moving is a HASSLE!!! Find a new ‘perfect’ home at the right price … easier said than done. Next, of course, is hoping that your area isn’t one of the areas that is being ‘de-populated’ so that you can get a decent price for the home that you occupy. And I’m ignoring the issues regarding your place of work.

        As I said earlier, two years ago I moved to my present home based on the airport that I worked at for almost four years. Then, due to a shortage of inspectors and an abundance of projects, my commute goes from 15 miles to over 45 miles (one way). I go into over-drive at finding a new position within the city. I won’t go into the details, the what-if’s, the could-have-been’s and even what has recently happened to the position that I left. Suffice to say, I am/was lucky to find my new position and ended up not having to move OR make a 45 mile one way commute. The point is, your solution does not appear to take into account some of the issues that I outlined above.

        1. Here’s the problem as I see it. People no longer have “careers” at one company or even one regional location but home ownership is still very much an American ethic.

          but homes don’t “swap” as easily as jobs – at least yet.

          so in Urban Areas with beltways and freeways… people change jobs much, much more frequently than they change their houses.

          I’m not sure that even the advent of toll roads changes this given the experience we see with Loudoun and the DTR.

          So I do not think Accurates circumstance are unusual – but rather common and people are willing to drive longer commutes… it’s actually not going the other way .. moving closer…shorter commutes.. the trend is to longer commutes.

  15. re: school costs

    typically – it costs around 25K to provide a seat for a student. 500 student elementary schools go for 20-30 million. 1000-2000 seat high schools for 80-100 million.

    for operational expenses – typically 10K per student – 5K from the state and 5+K from the locality with some in poor areas paying less and those in affluent areas more – and some affluent areas considerably more – 12-14K total.

    but if you are parents – it will cost the county/state taxpayers 25K for the seat and 12x10K for operational = 150K to provide your child with a secondary education.

    Unless you are paying 10K a year in taxes on your home – you’re not coming close to covering the capital facilities and operational costs.

  16. school costs don’t vary according to “smart” or “sprawl” since the cost is per kid and there are no savings for scale.

    but smaller, fast growing exurban jurisdictions do not have the fiscal capability to build a lot of new schools – without increasing taxes. They simply don’t have the credit capacity that is based on their current revenues.

    so a jurisdiction of 100K people – growing at 5-10% a year is going to have to increase taxes if they don’t collect sufficient school proffers to build new schools without adding significant debt.

  17. reed fawell III Avatar
    reed fawell III

    The many above comments are enlightening and useful. I not sure yet where they may lead me down the road to solutions. But they surely go to the heart of some controversies and demand further thought on my part.

    To date my philosophy has been simple. The key objective to building what people live in, work in and play in, is to build things that throw off a high ratio of wealth (broadly defined) to cost (broadly defined). And to build these things into a community that not only sustains itself but that has the ingredients built into it to generate ever more value over cost over time.

    Doing this right today is a highly creative and demanding process. It requires a commitment that is akin to that demanded of lead climber on highly speculative ascent up an unclimbed route. Very few understand this dynamic. Most take it for all granted. They cannot appreciate what a superb local government and superb group of developers bring to the table. Nor do they appreciate the enormous risks that developers incur, risks that others always avoid, yet benefit greatly from if success follows their effort. (Note: Crony capitalist should be excluded from the game, they are thieves)

    Since my focus was urban, I thought of mixed uses and transport. I though if these ingredients were put together right, they would throw off huge wealth. And that this created out of thin air wealth would be shared and spread throughout the realm. Like in Arlington where some 10% of the land that created almost no wealth before now generates some 50% of the entire county’s wealth. And I though that most this taxable 50% goes to support roads schools parks ect everywhere else, including rural public roads.

    Thus to my mind capital cost of building transport cost was a utility funded out of the common-realms generated wealth. And that it was bad policy to require or allow private enterprise, much less private builders, to buy and control these roads for two vital reasons. First, it would throttle wealth creating communities. Developers are not gods, their means and brass are limited, and whatever they do the public will pay for in spades, much of it in the way of unexpected and not so happy consequences. Plus they cannot be trusted with such assets. They’ll abuse those assets for their own interests. (are we not seeing this right now on Dulles Toll Road, among others if people knew what goes on.)

    I thought this way of building things and sharing costs was how America always worked and that it worked because America worked. Maybe that’s the real problem. Maybe America doesn’t work the way its use to work.

  18. geeze –

    you cannot trust the private sector because they have a profit motive

    but you also cannot trust the govt because they are corrupt and incompetent.


    1. reed fawell III Avatar
      reed fawell III

      Your conclusions are precisely the opposite of what I said.

  19. “And that it was bad policy to require or allow private enterprise, much less private builders, to buy and control these roads for two vital reasons.
    Plus they cannot be trusted with such assets. They’ll abuse those assets for their own interests. ”

    excerpt from prior comments:

    ” At the same time we are also paradoxically seeing government become more and more intrusive in places where government does not belong, and where government as enormous power to do great harm. Things are flipping our systems of society upside down. It’s leading us into an era of gross dysfunction, enormous waste, pervasive corruption, and ignorance.”


    Reed – you do seem to say both things at different times…

    you are not the only one… you could probably even put me in that category at times…

    but if we step back for a minute – we should be able to freely admit that both govt and private developers have been castigated for their respective roles in settlement patterns by many of the commenters in BR.

    It’s like toll roads – we don’t like the govt doing them and we don’t like the private sector doing them.

    at times when I’m reading comments – I see this dual dislike of both govt and the private sector – as if we trust neither (but then I always ask – what’s the alternative?)

    1. reed fawell III Avatar
      reed fawell III

      Actually I am quite consistent, although there is always irony and paradox everywhere we turn and no black or white anywhere, but shades and nuance and qualifier and exceptions to most everything going on around us instead.

      Regarding this consistency, and my statement you highlighted:” At the same time we are also paradoxically seeing government become more and more intrusive in places where government does not belong, and where government as enormous power to do great harm. Things are flipping our systems of society upside down. It’s leading us into an era of gross dysfunction, enormous waste, pervasive corruption, and ignorance.”

      I have spoke at length about what I mean by this statement. This statement is not an attack on government. Its completely the reverse, a plea for competent, efficient, strong and honest government that does its job, serving the public interest of all citizens, by doing well and impartially those things that private enterprise cannot do or cannot be trusted to do.

      For example, to grossly simplify:

      I do not want private enterprise to decide where my roads go. I do not want private people to control my access to my home or to decide and enforce how much I pay to go from A to B or whether my family is safe in my home.

      Private people with that sort of power over me is not acceptable to me. History tells me they will always look after their interests (find how much money or power they can make off me and my family) and will never fail over time to favor and enforce their interests at my expense.

      So here I turn to government. History tell me that I can only trust efficient, competent, and accountable to the people government to build and control and bill me for my roads, because by definition such government will not make a profit off me at my expense, or force me into things against my will.

      And so its my fervent desire also to have a government so competent and efficient that it can play a critical roll in building the playing field on which private enterprise can join with the community to build a wealth creating downtown like the one Arlington enjoys. A downtown that was build for everyone’s benefit who lives there and even for the benefit of those living 45 miles distant across a river in another state or city.

      That is the government I want.

      The government I do not want is one that spends my money and other peoples money to build million dollar bus stops. Nor do I want a government that acquiesces in laying out a playing fields that allow private enterprise to build a city like Tyson’s Corner that serves a few while it goes about daily despoiling and abusing citizens throughout an entire region. For the details see comment found at https://www.baconsrebellion.com/2013/10/eviscerating-rail-transit.html#comments

      Nor do I want a government that allows others to waste $billions of public moneys on debacles like the Silver Line or on Dulles Airport, often doing things that not only waste vast sums of the peoples money, but that also cripple OUR airport with unsustainable debt. This necessary debt is now so large that it must be kept afloat by blood money forced from those whose use their airport and even those trying to drive down a public highways miles away, to get to work somewhere else to earn a living.

      This raises another kind of government I do not like, namely one that aligns itself with and lavishes public monies on those private interests (private enterprise) to achieve the objectives of a few other private interests likely in return for campaign contributions and God knows what else, such as we see going on in the “so called” By-Pass” or Rt. 29 north of Charlottesville. For details see: https://www.baconsrebellion.com/2013/11/the-road-to-wealth-destruction-an-update.html#comments

      So I am pro-good government and honest private enterprise.

  20. […] the systemic subsidies for green-field development. Their critique runs only one way. – Why Conservatives (mistakenly) hate smart growth – Bacons […]

  21. […] ignore the systemic subsidies for green-field development. Their critique runs only one way. – Why Conservatives (mistakenly) hate smart growth – Bacons […]

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