Blog Archives

The Cost of Suburban Sprawl and Why Smart Growth Yields Greater Tax Revenues for a Community

For decades it was a given that growing suburban communities benefit from the development that comes their way. Township supervisors were eager for development to expand the tax base of their municipality. It didn’t take long, however, for residents and local officials to begin to see the downside from sprawl as open space disappeared, roads became jammed with traffic, and the unique crossroad villages of their previously sleepy rural township became consumed by an endless, mind numbing array of strip malls, track housing, and nondescript industrial parks. The local sense of place was lost to the ubiquitous auto-bound culture that is suburban sprawl.

Early studies indicated that not all development was good for the tax base. Although industrial development generated revenue and made little demands on services and commercial development usually was a break even proposition, residential development most definitely did not pay for itself when built in a low density fashion. Housing brought kids which put a strain on the school system, requiring more teachers and class rooms to teach a burgeoning student population. Transporting students by bus across spread out distances added more cost to educating our youth. More residents meant eventual need for a professional police department, perhaps a professional fire department, and expanded demand for parks and other recreational amenities. Single use zoning required more roads to connect the dots of life among sprawl and all of this cost more than property taxes on residential units would be able to sustain over the long term.

Now a new report from Smart Growth America provides additional evidence that sprawl is expensive and costs a lot more than traditional neighborhood development does. Surveying 17 studies of compact versus sprawl development across the country revealed that compact development cost 38 percent less in upfront infrastructure than sprawl because it requires fewer miles of roads, sewer, and water lines than the low density pattern of development that is the norm in suburbia. Compact development also cost 10% less in ongoing service delivery costs by reducing distances that police, fire protection, and garbage trucks have to travel to serve residents. On top of it more traditional, compact models of development yield, on average, about 10 times more tax revenue per acre. It’s all pretty obvious but culturally elusive that traditional town development would yield higher revenues, while reducing delivery of service costs, and reducing infrastructure costs too.

Building in a more compact, denser form does not mean overcrowding. Indeed, some of our most cherished communities in America are built with anywhere from 10 to 15 residential units an acre and accommodate both the car and pedestrian in a walkable, multi-travel-route street grid with tree shaded sidewalks. The mixed use nature of traditional development lends itself to greater walkability, convenience, vitality, and the vibrancy that come from a mixed use setting of homes, shops, schools, parks and places of employment all within a compact form. Think of places like Georgetown, Savannah, Park Slope in Brooklyn, or the Lehigh Valley’s extremely stable and desirable neighborhoods of College Hill in Easton, Allentown’s West End or Bethlehem’s downtown neighborhood located around Main, New, Church, and Market Streets and you begin to get the picture. In addition to the wonderful quality of life factors that come from traditional patterns of development and foster a true sense of community, more compact development simply yields a better tax base with less of the costs that come from the spread out, overextended pattern of development that is suburban sprawl. For more details on the Smart Growth America report, go to: http://www.theatlanticcities.com/neighborhoods/2013/05/quantifying-cost-sprawl/5664/.

Our guest blogger, Representative Robert Freeman, represents the 136th Legislative District of Northampton County.  During his previous 12 years in the House, Freeman served as chairman of the House Select Committee on Land Use and Growth Management (1991-92), which recommended ways to improve growth management and reduce sprawl. He was one of the leaders in revising the Municipalities Planning Code in 2000 and authored the Elm Street Program designed to revitalize older residential neighborhoods. The Elm Street legislation was signed into law in February 2004.  He also teaches a course at Lehigh University entitled on growth management and the politics of sprawl. Representative Freeman joined the Renew Lehigh Valley Board of Directors in 2013.
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Consolidation in Action: Princeton, NJ

For a long time, there was Princeton, NJ the borough and Princeton, NJ the township – not anymore. In 2011, residents voted to consolidate the neighboring municipalities and their merger took effect on January 1, 2013.

To coordinate the process, the new municipality created a task force. The Transition Task Force is comprised of twelve members: Five voting members each from the Borough and Township, and one alternate each. The Task Force also includes both the Borough and Township administrators. The Task Force is being assisted by the State Department of Community Affairs and other outside experts. This consolidation represents the joining of a relatively developed and economically stable borough, and a much more rural township. Despite their cultural differences, the merge was seen as having huge potential in cost-saving for both municipalities.

The two municipalities are in the process of overcoming budgeting differences, as they had previously allocated funds through different channels and were not able to merely combine their revenues and cut out the redundant departments. In order to make sure that the service and fiscal planning would aptly serve the new municipality, subcommittees were formed from the Transition Task Force and included Facilities, Finance, Infrastructure, Personnel and Public Safety. The state of New Jersey was also helpful in the transitional phases, offering 20 percent of cost reimbursement and funding an upgrade in the police information system. Special consideration went into ensuring that consolidation would not yield a decline in the services provided by either municipality. These services consist of trash collection, financial reporting, police staffing and relocating public facilities, among others.

In Pennsylvania, it’s been difficult to undertake such huge projects, but Renew Lehigh Valley has been advocating for consolidation since its inception and there has been some success. Right here in the Lehigh Valley, we have seen consolidation of police departments with the Colonial Regional Police Department that provides law enforcement services to Bath Borough, Hanover Township, and Lower Nazareth Township all in Northampton County.

Courage to Connect in New Jersey is holding a public meeting on June 5 to examine the case of Princeton, below is their information on the event:

This has been a remarkable year in NJ with the implementation of the Princeton Consolidation.
You are invited to:
Be Inspired by the success of Princeton Township and Princeton Borough becoming ONE town.
Learn from elected officials from around the state about their experience with school, police, fire and municipal consolidation.
Connect with innovative leaders in NJ, making a difference!
When: Wednesday June 5, 2013 from 8:00 AM to 12:30PM
Where: Princeton University
Robertson Hall, Dodds Auditorium
Prospect Ave at Washington Rd
Princeton, NJ

Seminar Schedule
8:00 – 8:45 a.m. Registration and Continental Breakfast
8:45 a.m. Welcome and Introduction
Gina Genovese, Executive Director, Courage to Connect NJ
8:50 – 10:00 a.m. Princeton: A Road Map to Follow
Princeton Mayor Liz Lempert
Princeton Councilwoman Heather Howard
Princeton Administrator Robert W. Bruschi
CGR President and CEO Joseph Stefko
10:00 – 10:15 a.m. A Path to Success
Former Princeton Township Mayor Chad Goerner
10:30 – 11:30 a.m. Elected Officials Discuss their Experiences with Consolidation
Senator Bob Gordon – NJ District 38
Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli – NJ District 16
Freeholder Rob Walton – Hunterdon County
Mayor Paul Fernicola – Loch Arbour
11:30am – 12:30pm Benefits of Police and Fire Consolidation
President and CEO of Public Safety Solutions, Les Adams
Princeton Police Captain Nicholas Sutter
Princeton Police Lieutenant Christopher Morgan