State of sprawl: Florida masks costs of growth, dares to celebrate results

The upcoming elections provide an excellent opportunity for a debate on whether or not to fully account for the costs of growth in Florida. Those costs, as in other fast-growing states, have been accumulating for decades and are now impossible to ignore—suburban sprawl is a white elephant in the living room whose appetite has busted through the walls.

Sprawl boosters argue that regulations and impact fees cover the costs of growth, and when they don’t, its advocates cite the priorities of jobs, affordable housing and expanded tax base (to pay for what limps behind like bad roads, environmental protection and underfunded schools). When those points crumble—as they do—they then default to indignation: that any restrictions of the free market providing what consumers want is greater than any harm—for instance, drowning.

Nothing about sprawl is free.

Consider a recent Tampa Tribune article, “Finally putting a price tag on fast residential growth,” reporting that Hillsborough County had undertaken to determine the true costs of new subdivisions.

”A trial run of a computer program designed to solve the fiscal mystery has discovered that a development of 490 single-family homes with an average taxable value of $110,288 each creates a shortfall of $1.44 million a year. Other taxpayers must help these homeowners pay for schools, roads and other local services. Or, if the budget is tight, as it usually is, the result is overcrowded schools, traffic jams and water shortages.”

The results don’t need to be explained, even if the causes are addressed by public officials as rarely as the planet Venus transits the sun.

In Florida, the last time was in February 2000, when Gov. Jeb Bush briefly took the temperature of public opinion on the costs of growth, through a survey conducted by the Florida Department of Community Affairs. When the respondents’ temperature was fairly judged to be boiling over, he quickly clamped the lid back on the pot.

People are fed up with losing time, money and energy coping with traffic that only gets worse, with schools that are chronically underfunded, a quality of life and environmental resources that never seem to keep pace despite public investments to make things better. It could be Nevada, Texas, Colorado or California—sprawl in Florida is no different because the grievances are the same.

These are not good facts for the proponents of sprawl. When all else fails, its apologists turn to the argument of last resort: that resentments are tied to a high-brow mentality of those already privileged who would like to deny the comforts, standards of living and mobility which they enjoy. This fiction melts like a Popsicle.

The Hillsborough analysis predicts a 20-year deficit of $500 million for infrastructure required to service 8,310 single-family homes approved last year. Apply that ratio to 156,000 new single-family-home permits issued in Florida in 2003, and the grand total is an eye-popping $9.3 billion.

Take a couple of billion off for the benefit of doubt: It is still an enormous number and, when multiplied by real years of accumulated, unfunded deficits in Florida—pick a number, the year you got married or your first child was born or you graduated from high school or moved to Florida—the point emerges: When politicians say “there are no simple, inexpensive solutions” to growth, they are dodging the truth.

We mask the costs of growth and celebrate the results. Florida’s 22 percent increase in single-family building permits was the fastest-growing rate in the nation in 2003, a crowning achievement to some, a generator of wealth to others, but for most taxpayers the transformation of Florida’s landscape is a fiscal horror show from which so much strip-mall culture emerges as the winged avenger of some distorted and unwanted destiny.

Forget professional baseball players: The steroids to worry about are the ones our politics regularly ingest to power suburban sprawl.

The billions of dollars of accumulated, unfunded deficits cannot describe how Florida is a lesser place for degraded ecosystems like the Everglades, requiring many more billions to salvage, or that neighborhood lake or stream you used to fish and swim in fearlessly but can’t today because of pollution, or the beach closed because of toxic algae blooms.

Ours is a great state and ours is a great nation, and it will take great leadership to rise above the indefensible arguments that have worked, nonetheless, to hook taxpayers to the yoke of reckless growth like common oxen.

So the questions for the candidates for federal office include: What policies do you advocate that will unburden taxpayers from the equation of sprawl and its costs, what is the appropriate federal role to protect the quality of life and natural resources that local elected and state officials will not account for, and how have your past decisions in your chosen career reflected your positions?

These are reasonable questions that even the proponents of suburban sprawl can stand.

Speak up, candidates.

We can’t wait to hear what you have to say.

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