A Sprawling Problem: Dealing With Land Use

It is heartening to learn that some people have heeded

President Bush’s call for citizen action rather than relying on government to

do the job. A couple of weeks ago, members of the Long Island chapter of E.L.F.

(Earth Liberation Front) gave us a splendid example of local initiative and

neighborhood activism when they doused a pickup truck and a 14-ton payloader

with gasoline and put a torch to them. Shortly after the deed was done, an Elf

in Spokane, Ore., made a public declaration warning the world that “all businesses,

large or small, which participate in earth-raping industries will continue to

be targeted as a part of the E.L.F.’s ongoing campaign to evoke economic damage

to those responsible for urban sprawl.”

Even though this is but the latest of four or five attacks

on Long Island and elsewhere, at the moment the Elves may end up evoking more

damage to the English language than to the construction industry. Nevertheless,

many of us who are not incendiary pixies are depressed and angry at urban

sprawl, though we don’t know quite what ought to be done about it.

First off, defining sprawl is like trying to catch a baby

trout with your bare hands. It is as the judge once said of pornography: “I

can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.” And we see it all around us.

Some of us reach for flambeaux, and others try to contain the gobbling up of

the country by putting growth-limit propositions on the ballot and changing the

zoning laws. In community after community, Chamber of Commerce Babbittry about

growth is no longer welcome. The developer is the enemy, or at least the enemy

of some. Besides the real estate and construction industries, organizations

dedicated to securing housing for the poor and the almost poor are decidedly

unenthusiastic about proposals that inhibit home building, since scarcity

raises prices. Hence, this fall the Colorado affiliates of Habitat for Humanity

opposed a whole parcel of ballot propositions designed to stop the spread of

man’s works across this increasingly tattered and worn-out continent.

You don’t have to be Jimmy Carter to conclude that ignoring

the housing needs of the poor is short-sighted and can lead to no small amount

of inconvenience for those whose cash flows abundantly. The ski resort of Vail,

Colo., is the most famous example of getting rid of the low-cost housing and

then realizing one’s servants had no place to lay their heads.

Local ordinances will only go so far in slowing the wanton

land use, since the rich have all kinds of ways of defeating anti-growth

zoning. In northern California, baby vineyards are used to get around zoning

that discourages building McMansions. In addition to zoning, changing the tax

laws may work to slow the barbarous destruction of the landscape.

Among the ideas that suggest themselves: What about

eliminating the interest deduction on mortgages larger than $300,000? This

would by no means end the destructive processes which go under the name of

“sprawl,” but it would cut back the number of customers for land-wasteful

housing. Taxing houses on an upward sliding scale according to their size

affords us a powerful prod to use on people with profligate building ideas. In

addition to the ordinary real estate tax, local jurisdictions, states or even

the federal government might levy a stiff tax on every inch of space in a

residence over, say, 3,500 square feet. To encourage the maximum use of lots in

metropolitan areas, unused land over a certain allowable minimum might be taxed

at a high rate. Thus, if it were known in advance that new, large houses on imposingly

grand lots would come with a $75,000-a-year tax surcharge, we might see less

sprawl and more frugal and cleverly designed use of land.

While not immediately as effective as tossing a Molotov

cocktail at a bulldozer, in the long run slapping heavy annual fees on power

lawn mowers could have a vastly more salubrious effect. If you had to pay

$1,500 a year to keep and operate a lawn mower and $3,000 a year for a riding

mower, you might conclude that a domicile with a small lot size had something to

say for itself. We would never have seen the kind of suburban real-estate

development we have had for the past half century if lawns had to be kept

looking like putting greens or cemeteries with hand mowers. There would be so

many beneficent side effects to making power mowers expensive luxuries:

Obviously, noise levels would be lowered, air pollution would be lessened,

significant amounts of gasoline would be saved and, with the shrinking of the

thousands of acres of lawn, there would be a concomitant diminution in the use

of herbicides, pesticides and promiscuous use of deleterious fertilizers.

America’s horticultural Vietnam-the never-ending, always-losing war against the

dandelion- would be at an end. The end of chemical warfare on the lawn would

inevitably bring in its train weeds, wild flowers and a variety of bugs,

including wonderfully ugly moths and lovely butterflies. The recrudescence of

the arthropods should bring with it a jump, for birds, in the food supply-and

the chirp and twitter will once more be heard, we can hope, in this American

land of ours.

Under this approach, the rich will still be safe in their

palatial digs surrounded by royal vistas of greensward, since these measures

are not offered to level the society, but only to try and save the countryside

from irremediable depravation. This approach has scant chance of success as it

is, but if the rich were to be aced out of their estates, they would line up

against it, and the general idea would be dead before it was debated.

It’s probably stillborn

anyhow. It cuts against the American grain, which is best exemplified these

days in the S.U.V., designed as it is to give positive reinforcement to

suburban dementia: that is, the belief that the S.U.V. owner and family inhabit

a wild and wonderful countryside where big tires and four-wheel drive are

needed to take car and occupants out of the mud to the top of the untamed

mountain where they live. In actuality, they live on an asphalt plain that

extends farther than a full tank of gasoline can take them. So the chances of

persuading people to control and improve an environment they don’t even know

they’re living in are not what they might be.

Beyond residential sprawl, there is the little problem of

retail-shopping sprawl. It has taken no more than 40 years to bestrew the

landscape with slummy, half-abandoned shopping centers which, to say something

on their behalf, go well with the countless thousands of ugly, slummy,

half-abandoned commercial strips. What an improvement it would make if we could

convert these to other uses or take down the litter of empty,

non-revenue-producing commercial property found everywhere. Even that seems to

be beyond us.

Americans have a history of making dreck and ruins of their

habitations and moving on. If you do this long enough, you may not run out of

territory on a continent of this size, but you will run out of desirable

territory, out of space that anyone wants to occupy. You may leave huge

stretches unsullied but remove and wreck large portions of fruitful, arable


You would be hard pressed, however, to find an area of

government with a more feeble and less successful record than the regulation of

land use. If narcotics has a rival in the amount of corrupt money changing

hands, it may be zoning, a government activity famous for bribery and

favoritism. And yet, the scope and type of regulation needed to control sprawl

goes way beyond zoning.

If sprawl is ever to be brought under control, master

planning of a sort involving energy use, transportation and who knows what else

will have to be undertaken. Well, you don’t have to be a Bush Republican to

shudder at names like “master plan.” Even liberals and lefties who once put

great stock in planning have, thanks to books like Robert Caro’s classic

biography of Robert Moses, less faith in what planning can do. The cause of

planning has also not been helped by the example of the late Soviet Union.

Most recently, Hillary Clinton found out that top-down

planning won’t even make it out of the

closed White House conference room where her health plan was hatched. Bottom-up,

democratic planning has rarely been tried, and it has certainly never been

contemplated on the scale needed to deal with urban sprawl. Do Americans, who

get a tickle out of seeing themselves as over-energized, willful

individualists, have the patience for the slow process of democratic

planning-assuming, of course, we can even agree on what democratic planning

should consist of?

And yet, we have no choice but to try to make a go of it;

the alternative is creeping around suburban construction sites with a Coke

bottle full of gasoline playing Elf.