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Costs of Sprawl

In this section, costs of sprawl are first viewed in summary from the National Research Council's study Costs of Sprawl—Revisited (1998). The costs of suburban versus exurban growth are examined in an American Farmland Trust study; the public costs of exurban sprawl may be significantly lower than suburban growth costs. This is due to the difference in public services rendered exurban rural residents (as noted in the Lack of Services in Rural Sprawl). Lastly, cost questions for the Sacramento Watershed focuses on issues specific to the anticipated agricultural land conversion to exurban rural residential growth.

Costs of Sprawl from National Research Council

The National Research Council produced two major studies called Costs of Sprawl (1974) and Costs of Sprawl—Revisited (1998). The latter study addresses five basic areas of the costs of sprawl:

  • public/private capital and operating costs
  • transportation and travel costs
  • land/natural habitat preservation
  • quality of life
  • social issues

From the introduction [PDF, 644 KB]:

Why such interest in sprawl? Although Americans like their single-family residences, automobiles, and suburban lifestyles, there is a nagging feeling that both the aesthetics of how communities develop and the efficiency of movement within and between them could be improved. In addition, buried down deep is a recognition that Americans are wasteful in their consumption of manmade (infrastructure) and natural (land) resources, and that their development choices are selfish in terms of impacts on central cities and the populations within them. But first it must be shown to the citizenry at large that there is a problem, because life is good and "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

A very abbreviated condensation of topics in this study follows. Readers are encouraged to review the original document as the study is a synthesis of literature on all aspects of sprawl (links provided). Note that topics are labeled "alleged impacts," as there are significant contradictions in the literature, and specific regional conditions may affect costs.

Sprawl's Alleged Negative Impacts Sprawl's Alleged Positive Impacts
Public/Private Capital and Operating Costs (Report, Part B [PDF, 1 MB])
  • Higher Infrastructure Costs
  • Higher Public Operating Costs
  • More Expensive Private Residential and Nonresidential Development Costs
  • More Adverse Public Fiscal Impacts
  • Higher Aggregate Land Costs
  • Lower Public Operating Costs
  • Less Expensive Private Residential and Nonresidential Development Costs
  • Fosters Efficient Development of "Leapfrogged Areas"
Transportation and Travel Costs (Report, Part B [PDF, 1 MB])
  • More Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT)
  • Longer Travel Times
  • More Automobile Trips
  • Higher Household Transportation Spending
  • Less Cost-Efficient and Effective Transit
  • Higher Social Costs of Travel
  • Shorter Commuting Times
  • Less Congestion
  • Lower Governmental Costs for Transportation
  • Automobiles Most Efficient Mode of Transportation
Land/Natural Habitat Preservation (Report, Part B [PDF, 1 MB])
  • Loss of Agricultural Land
  • Reduced Farmland Productivity
  • Reduced Farmland Viability
  • Loss of Fragile Environmental Lands
  • Reduced Regional Open Space
  • Enhanced Personal and Public Open Space
Quality of Life (Report, Part C [PDF, 1.5 MB])
  • Aesthetically Displeasing
  • Weakened Sense of Community
  • Greater Stress
  • Higher Energy Consumption
  • More Air Pollution
  • Lessened Historic Preservation
  • Preference for Low-Density Living
  • Lower Crime Rates
  • Enhanced Value or Reduced Costs of Public and Private Goods
  • Fosters Greater Economic Well-Being
Social Issues (Report, Part C [PDF, 1.5 MB])
  • Fosters Suburban Exclusion
  • Fosters Spatial Mismatch
  • Foster Residential Segregation
  • Worsens City Fiscal Stress
  • Worsens Inner-City Deterioration
  • Fosters Localized Land Use Decisions
  • Enhanced Municipal Diversity and Choice

Costs of Suburban vs. Exurban Sprawl

The cost of suburban sprawl has been the focus of numerous studies and dozens of books over the past several decades. The predominance of low density rural residential development in the Sacramento River watershed, however, seems to present a different scenario than presented in most of the literature on suburban sprawl. The low density development is more characterized by ranchettes than by leapfrog suburban tracts (though that is also occurring nearer incorporated cities). Because the lower density is in unincorporated areas without services, the cost of this ranchette style sprawl is lower than the suburban sprawl cost analyses that are the focus of almost all the sprawl studies. As an illustration of this pattern, we will look first at a study by the American Farmland Trust, who have been leaders in studying the conversion of agricultural land to suburban sprawl. A brief overview of the literature on the costs of sprawl follows.

The American Farmland Trust conducted Cost of Community Services (COCS) studies on 102 residential developments to measure direct fiscal relationship of residential, commercial, and industrial land uses to determine the contributions of existing local land uses. The COCS shows the median costs per dollars of revenue raised to provide the public services for these three land uses.

In the 102 studies analyzed, the costs of residential services exceeded the revenue raised by the public service providers in every case. The range per dollar of revenue raised was from a low of $1.03 to high of $2.11, with an average of $1.15 in costs for every $1.00 of revenue raised. (See study Fact Sheet [PDF, 105 KB].)

Very low density development, however, occurs in rural areas with initially larger lot sizes of 10 to 80+ acres. Virtually no services are provided by the public entity except for the road; rural residents have to provide their own water supply (wells), waste water treatment (septic), street lights, most security and safety services, garbage collection, and the host of other "city services" which are part of urban planned unit developments. Thus, the costs of very low density rural development are more accurately grouped with "working and open land" rather than "residential."

Very low density development, then, has an apparent initial cost to counties far lower than the taxes and fees collected to provide services. This is an incentive to the land use agency to allow low density development and lot splits. It is only decades later when low density areas become "built out to capacity" that the pressure for greater services arises (wider roads with lighting, traffic control, etc). Other unforeseen impacts emerge over time. For example, septic tank seepage into groundwater in Chico low density rural residential areas polluted wells with nitrates; state revolving loan funds were made available to take the low density community off septic tanks and make regional wastewater facilities available to the low density community — an expensive proposition. Not only did the landowner-purchased septic systems become stranded assets, but the economies of scale are not present for an efficient regional system at a reasonable cost when serving a low density community.

Cost Questions for the Sacramento Watershed

The Sacramento River watershed has very large areas of land that are zoned for low and very low density development. It was only in 2004 that the region's county general plans were compiled, as shown in Current Watershed General Plans. It would be prudent to better understand the cumulative impact of low density rural residential development on a regional scale:

  • Studies need to be done to discover the true costs of low density rural residential development for public services over the long term.

  • Transportation studies need to anticipate the long term build-out of general plans regionally. Blueprint processes have begun in the Chico and Redding area, but a region-wide integration would be prudent.

  • Groundwater quality impacts of low density development need to be better understood, particularly with regard to jurisdictional boundaries and cross-boundary impacts.

  • Air quality impacts are closely related to transportation; will the region become a low density traffic jam? Is there a regional solution? Is there a mass transit option?

  • Air quality is also impacted by wood-burning stoves and fire places, which are common sources of heat and enjoyment in rural residential homes. Sacramento County has recently begun regulating burn days for fireplaces. What development densities will determine air quality thresholds throughout the watershed?

  • Surface water impacts from exurban/suburban runoff need to be well understood for this area's land use plans, both in terms of water quality and quantity.

    • SRWP's water quality monitoring have consistently shown high toxicity in urban streams from pesticide residues in runoff. What does rural residential cumulative water quality impact look like?

    • Water quantity impacts include impervious surfaces which decrease groundwater recharge and increase "flashy" runoff flood dangers. How will drainage be managed in rural residential areas?

  • Fire ecosystem management needs to be addressed, particularly in foothill areas where fuel loading is already problematic. Will transformation from grazing to exurban land use increase or decrease the dangers?