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Opponents of “Urban Sprawl” should use market-based solutions

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WASHINGTON, DEC. 21, 2000 – Two high-profile, "anti-sprawl" ballot initiatives in Arizona and Colorado were defeated Nov. 7, but the debate over how-and even whether-to limit suburban growth continues. Enter a new manifesto on the topic: the Lone Mountain Compact.

Signed by more than 100 academics, scholars and public policy officials, the compact argues that it is possible to improve the way communities develop without driving housing costs through the roof, but only if government eschews centralized, one-size-fits-all plans that give local residents little say in the development of their neighborhoods. Communities should instead use market-based solutions to ease traffic congestion and preserve open space, the group says.

In many communities, politicians are pushing "smart growth" plans that call for "high-density" development, which require people to live even more closely to one another. The result, according to the other "Lone Mountain" signers, is predictable-and somewhat ironic: More traffic, more congestion. And the inefficient, expensive transit systems that anti-sprawl officials enthusiastically tout go unused by a vast majority of commuters.

"Call it the downside to prosperity, if you will," said Heritage Foundation Senior Research Fellow Ronald Utt, one of the signatories. "But a healthy economy brings growth, and growth brings bigger houses and more homeowners. And as technology progresses, it will only become easier for people to live and work outside of traditional urban centers."

As the guiding principle behind any anti-sprawl agenda, the compact proposes that people generally should be allowed to live and work where and how they like. "There�??s nothing wrong with efforts to reshape development patterns, as long as communities are not being forced to accept top-down, centralized plans hatched at the state or federal level," Utt said. "Decisions about neighborhood development are best left to local residents."

This means, of course, that different communities in different parts of the country will come up with different solutions-which should be encouraged, say the "Lone Mountain" signers. Some neighborhoods are relying on "neotraditional" designs to capture an old-fashioned look; others are renovating historic districts and building "eco-developments," which promise a rural setting with access to modern-day conveniences.

Local officials can also use "performance zoning," which sets standards for congestion, landscaping and open space without spelling out how the standards must be met. "The point is to let the market determine the most efficient solution, whether it be a certain type of neighborhood design or toll roads," Utt said.

Property rights also must be preserved, the signers point out, and local officials should always evaluate the potential for any type of "anti-sprawl" initiative to boost home costs for low-income groups. And the rights of current residents, who often want to close the community to "outsiders," shouldn�??t supersede those of future residents.

An informed discussion of these principles by is contained in "A Guide to Smart Growth: Shattering Myths, Providing Solutions," a guidebook published by The Heritage Foundation and the Political Economy Research Center (PERC) of Bozeman, Mont.

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