Chuck Marohn’s Message Resonates in Lehigh Valley

As a follow-up to last week’s blog about Chuck Marohn’s Strong Towns presentation, guest bloggers Ron Beitler and Scott Alderfer co-wrote the following post. Ron Beitler –, Ron is a local smart growth advocate. Scott Alderfer – Scott’s blog “streamhugger”, Scott is Chair of LMT’s Environmental Advisory Council

“Earlier this week, we had the opportunity to attend the lecture by Chuck Marohn, author and Executive Director of the Minnesota-based non-profit group Strong Towns that Ron mentioned guest blogging here on ‘Crossroads’ two weeks ago.  The mission of Strong Towns is to support a model for growth that allows America’s towns to become financially strong and resilient.  Chuck stopped in Lower Macungie last Wednesday as part of his week-long, 11-town lecture tour of Pennsylvania.  (Here is a link to a news story about Chuck’s talk in Lancaster, PA, later the same day that I heard him speak. )

Drawing on his experience as both a civil engineer and a land planner, Chuck argued that the way U.S. municipalities have been growing since World War II has been based on an unsustainable Ponzi scheme that funds continually-expanding suburban development without considering the long-term costs of that development.

Strong Town’s website explains that, since the end of World War II, our cities and towns have experienced growth using three primary mechanisms:

  • Transfer payments between governments: where the federal or state government makes a direct investment in growth at the local level, such as funding a water or sewer system expansion.
  • Transportation spending: where transportation infrastructure is used to improve access to a site that can then be developed.
  • Public- and private-sector debt: where cities, developers, companies, and individuals take on debt as part of the development process, whether during construction or through the assumption of a mortgage.

But these developments rarely generate more revenue than the taxpayer invested when governments take into account long-term obligations.  New, short-term gains in public revenue must then be used to offset the long-term costs from the “next big thing” of 20 years ago.  That’s because the costs to these governments in long-term maintenance or added debt service were not accounted for when the politicians were being courted by the developers decades earlier.

Chuck’s take home message was that any private development project that is seeking public assistance (e.g. utility or transportation subsidies or financing incentives) should present a realistic cost-benefit analysis.  And that includes all long-term costs.

When we … exploit land development ordinances that fail to recognize Smart Growth principles, we get more and more big box stores and strip malls on the outskirts of developed areas.  In other words, we get more sprawl.  They try to sell it to us with a fairy tale about how many more jobs their big box will create and how much more tax revenue the development will generate if the municipality will “partner” with the developer to extend roads and utilities to the cornfields that they want to pave over.  But widening our local roads to accommodate more sprawling developments only gives the illusion of prosperity in our local communities.

Developers and municipal officials, who may either be naïve or have ulterior motives, will continue the Ponzi scheme of getting governments to subsidize the infrastructure for more sprawl until there is a grassroots push to demand cost-benefit analyses for these train wrecks of cinder blocks and asphalt being touted as economic development.

Strong Towns’ mission to help towns become financially strong and resilient by making better-informed decisions is a mission that should appeal to folks of all political stripes.  For tree huggers (or stream huggers) like Scott, it means putting the brakes on unchecked development of greenfields, because most developers would have to fund more of the infrastructure improvements themselves. For fiscal conservatives, like Ron, it means making development pay it’s own way. Both of us see the value in both approaches. Either way the Strong Towns perspective is something to consider.”

Posted on January 15, 2013, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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