Smart Growth: It doesn't just threaten urban areas

by Randal O'Toole
The Thoreau Institute


Recent reports from smart-growth groups have shown that their goals
are not limited to reshaping American urban areas. They also want to
impose their high-density, mixed-use visions on small towns while
they freeze development in rural areas.

The most important report is called "Smart Growth at the Frontier"
(, which was published by
the Northeast-Midwest Institute. Despite the name, the institute is
located in Washington, DC. The report, which was funded by the
Environmental Protection Agency, urges that small towns and rural
counties adopt all the usual smart-growth prescriptions, including
"pedestrian-friendly" (i.e., auto-hostile) design in commercial
areas, "dense, mixed-use development" in residential areas, and
severe restrictions on development in rural areas.

"Residential development is the primary threat to rural landscapes,"
worries the report. It frets that "the highest rates of population
growth are occurring at the edges of metropolitan areas." This is, in
fact, practically a tautology, since existing populations on urban
fringes are by definition low, so any growth is a high rate.

To counter this growth, one of the report's most important
recommendations is that land on the urban fringe be zoned for cluster
development. Typically, such land is currently zoned for 10-acre lot
sizes. The owner of a 200-acre parcel can thus subdivide into twenty
10-acre lots. Cluster zoning would require instead that the parcel be
subdivided into twenty quarter-acre or smaller lots, and the
remaining 95+ acres be set aside, probably through permanent
conservation easements, as open space.

Cluster developments can be very attractive. But cluster zoning
carries with it potentially huge social costs. First, it excludes the
option of larger lot ownership for those who prefer such lots. In the
same way that auto-opponents are demonizing SUVs, smart-growth
advocates want to make ownership of large lots as socially
reprehensible as cigarette smoking has become.

More important in growing urban areas, cluster development closes the
future option for more development when such development is
appropriate. Whereas 10-acre lots in an area zoned for 10 acres can
be subdivided on rezoning, areas set aside as permanent conservation
easements cannot.

An urban area that is surrounded by cluster zoning will thus end up
with an effective greenbelt that limits expansion. The result will be
rapidly inflating land prices and unaffordable housing. The cluster
developments will become the exclusive homes of the rich, while the
middle- and lower-classes are packed into high-density,
open-space-poor areas of the city. As shown on pp. 442-443 of the
Vanishing Auto, this is in fact what is happening in San Diego.
Moreover, since the open space in the cluster developments remains
private, it may be closed to public use, which would give some people
a surplus of open space while imposing shortages on everyone else.

In an area that is already zoned for 10-acre lots, rezoning for
clusters may be relatively non-controversial because the landowners
get to subdivide either way. But it would be better not to have any
zoning at all. Then developers could do cluster developments if there
was a market for it, 10-acre lots if there was a market for it, or
other marketable developments.

"Smart Growth at the Frontier" also worries that small farmers are
threatened by development of the farms around them. Without any
documentation, the report speculates that this leads "farm equipment
suppliers and processing facilities" to go "out of business, thus
eliminating services for the farms left behind."

This cute argument justifies all sorts of policies to "protect"
farmers. These include restrictions on development, of course, as
well as subsidies to farmers and "right-to-farm" laws that allow
farmers to pollute without having to worry about challenges from
exurbanites who oppose pollution -- on the condition that the farmers
promise to continue polluting, um, farming forever.

Another program lauded by the report is transferrable development
rights (TDRs). Under TDRs, rural areas are protected from development
and urban areas are redeveloped to higher densities without rezoning.
Instead, urban redevelopers are allowed to buy higher density zoning
by paying rural landowners to not develop their land. The result may
be protection of open space, but urban residents suffer all the costs
of higher densities including congestion, infrastructure costs, and
lack of urban open space. The optional tour preceding the Preserving
the American Dream conference will look at some of the results of a
TDR program in Montgomery County, Maryland.

"Smart Growth at the Frontier" praises numerous examples of planners
imposing their wisdom on landowners and developers. One recent plan
singled out for acclaim is that for Loudoun County, Virginia, which
is on the fringe of the Washington, DC, metropolitan area.

Loudoun County planners divided the county into three basic zones:
suburban, transition, and rural. The suburban zone is slated for
higher density development, the transition zone for cluster
development, and development is severely restricted in the rural
zone. One of the speakers at the Preserving the American Dream
conference will talk about the drawbacks to this plan and efforts by
local residents to stop it.

Urban and rural land uses are extremely diverse and complex. Planners
who think they can collapse these uses into three, or even thirty,
categories are guilty of oversimplification. They are making the same
mistake as the foresters who seek to "simplify" forest ecosystems by
replacing diverse forests with monocultures.

Another recent report provides revealing evidence of the true
smart-growth agenda. "Smart Links: Turning Conservation Dollars into
Smart Growth Opportunities" (,
published by the Environmental Law Institute, proposes to use the
popularity of public funding for open space to promote smart growth.

Everyone loves open space. To most urban residents, "open space"
means city parks. If they think about it, they realize that their
backyards also contribute to open space. Large yards also contribute
to diverse wildlife habitat and healthy watersheds. But smart-growth
goals of high-density housing are incompatible with this form of open

When people vote for open space funding, they are not voting to give
up their yards. Yet "Smart Links" proposes that the two be tied
together. Specifically, the report urges federal and state
distributors of open space funds to only give money to local
governments that have adopted and implemented "smart growth
development techniques on lands in the jurisdiction that are not
slated for conservation."

City and county officials are highly susceptible to such extortion.
They'll ask their constituents, "Do you want to get open space funds
from the federal government?" If the answer is "yes," they'll
consider it a mandate for high-density, mixed-use zoning.

Rural residents have opposed restrictive zoning for decades, but have
received little support from urban residents who like the idea of
protecting open space. Smart growth shows that planning has costs for
both urban and rural residents, and thus creates an opportunity for
urban-rural coalitions of opponents to such policies.

Randal O'Toole The Thoreau Institute

Please feel free to forward or reprint this article with appropriate
citation. If you would like to be added to or removed from the
Thoreau Institute's urban mobility list, send an email to

You can learn how to be a more effective opponent of so-called
smart-growth planning at the Preserving the American Dream conference
on February 23-25 in Washington, DC. For complete information about
the conference, see

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