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Urban Smart Growth vs. Exurban Sprawl

Low density rural residential development is a category of development without a well defined set of principles. The principles of sustainability drive the "smart growth" movement; a comparison of the characteristics of low density growth to "smart growth" shows how different this category of development is from urban sustainability movements. The principles of smart growth used here were defined by the National Governors Association.

Principles of Smart Growth from National Governors Association Low Density Rural Residential Development as it relates to the smart growth principle
Mix land use Low density is a single land use of residential development. The purpose of mixing land use is to provide jobs and shopping close to homes; rural zoning is too dispersed to make economic sense for businesses. Some rural areas allow light industry (e.g., cabinetmaking, welding, etc.) on rural parcels.
Foster "walkable" close-knit neighborhoods Rural residential areas are not "walkable" for commute, shopping errands, or tasks other than pleasure or chores.
Preserve open space, farmland, natural beauty, and critical environmental areas Rural zoning often appears "cluttered" in contrast to open space standards and working farmland, especially grazing lands; access driveways, outbuildings, extra vehicles, trailers, "lay down yards," and the like are common.

Critical environmental areas, which usually have a natural "organic" shape (following drainages or vernal pool shapes, etc.) are very challenging to preserve in low density zoning which typically are rectangular or trapezoidal in relation to a straight road. Preservation incentives like conservation easements to encourage cooperation among landowners are rare, and complicated. Organizations doing conservation easements are under-funded to address this challenge at a significant level.

Create a range of housing opportunities and choices This principle targets the development design level, which does not exist in rural residential zoning where each landowner designs and builds to their own needs. "Granny units," or second houses on parcels, can chaotically address the need for a range of housing opportunities, but serve landowner needs, not a perceived societal need or guideline from the community at large.
Make development decisions predictable, fair and cost-effective Development decisions in rural residential zoning is solely at the discretion of the landowner, as long as it meets building codes and the rural residential zoning setbacks and standards. Build-out is unpredictable, based on economy and other drivers. Market constraints of re-sale may or may not be a consideration for landowners.
Provide a variety of transportation choices Low density zoning almost never reaches the cost effective level that supports public transportation. Dependency on the automobile is nearly total (with the possible exception of the school bus), and the norm is a vehicle that can meet varied rural lifestyle needs, which is most commonly the pickup truck.
Promote distinctive, attractive communities with a strong sense of place, including rehabilitation and use of historic buildings Few historic opportunities exist in rural residential areas, where farmhouses were sparsely located on very large parcels of several thousand acres, and were often not noteworthy in design or quality (compared to urban Victorian houses). Each landowner will have his/her own style and choices, which rarely leads to a coherent community design, and may or may not be attractive. One of the tragic ironies of rural development is that the character of the place is often diminished or altered by the development of those who were drawn to that place because of its character.
Take advantage of existing community assets Again, this principle does not apply to rural development and conversion of agricultural lands, where community assets are sparse. Taking advantage of natural resources may be a principle that could apply, but that is likewise subject to the choice of the landowner.
Encourage citizen and stakeholder participation in development decisions In rural development, landowners will do as they please on their land. The rural ethic is a libertarian respect for each landowner's right to do so. Citizen and stakeholder participation most often occur when individual landowner rights are threatened by imposition of regulation that diminishes those perceived rights and freedoms.
Strengthen and encourage growth in existing communities Low and very low density zoning are the opposite of this smart growth principle, as agricultural land conversion to exurban and low density suburban uses is essentially creating new communities from grazing lands and other farmland.

As the comparison indicates, low density rural residential development is not smart growth as defined by the National Governors Association. Yet, as the general plan map indicates, much of the Sacramento Valley and foothills is already zoned for this type of development. It appears that only market demand is holding back the conversion of most of the remaining agricultural land to low density rural residential. Few choices remain as the zoning is already in place: does society determine that this is going in the wrong direction and constrain growth through regulation? Or, are adaptation strategies developed that attempt to guide rural residential development in productive and low impact directions? Or, will a laissez-faire approach be taken, which would be the path of least resistance in rural counties? SRWP is exploring options for adaptation strategies by beginning to develop "best management practices" for low density rural residential development.