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Sprawl: Government, Commuters, Growth

The Limits of Smart Growth

Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 10, 2004; 11:00 AM

Anyone who has looked at the issue of suburban sprawl for very long comes around to an idea best expressed by Pogo: "We have met the enemy and he is us."

Many planners would like to stop sprawl by concentrating homes and other development into relatively dense town-like or city-like settlements. But given the public's desire for a big home on a big lot, our willingness to commute long distances and our protests against dense development, can the "smart growth" movement ever gain a foothold?

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Washington Post staff writer Peter Whoriskey concludes his series on area sprawl with Investing in Sprawl: The Limits of Smart Growth. Planners' Brains vs. Public's Brawn and was online Tuesday, Aug. 10., at 11 a.m. ET to discuss the three-part series.

Parts One and Two:Space for Employers, Not for Homes (Aug. 8) and Washington's Road to Outward Growth (Aug. 9)

A transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


Gaithersburg, Md.: As a young couple, in our mid to late 20's and fresh out of college within the past year and a half, it is so hard to find affordable housing in Montgomery County. I feel like we will be forced to move out of MoCo. to a far off town and have to add to our current commute of one hour each way for work. Do you find a lot of young couples struggling with these issues in this area? We feel like we should just pack up and get out of this area (not by choice, but by necessity) Thank you!

Peter Whoriskey: I think, judging from the e-mail I've gotten that there are lots of people who feel priced out - and not just young couples: single-wage households of all stripes seem particularly affected.

I hope the answer isn't that people have to move out of the region. There are many who would argue that there is plenty of affordable housing within the Metro area for those who would settle for a smaller yard, or a less glitzy address.


Columbia, Md.: I never see this addressed: How many of the retail and office employees in these new sprawl areas can afford the $550K+ townhomes and $800K+ sfh's in Maple Lawn, Emerson, Kentlands, Clarksburg, etc? Why kid ourselves that so many people can work and live in the same neighborhood? Sure, there are programs for low income home buyers, but not that many. Even a family with no debt, a healthy savings and an above average income cannot buy one of these homes by spending less than 30 percent of their income on housing.

Peter Whoriskey: You make a good point. Not everyone who holds a job in a new place like Clarksburg will have enough money to buy a home there. According to planners, the problem with Clarksburg, where there are far more workplaces planned than homes, is that it contributes to a regional housing shortage.


Clarksville, Md.: Since when has the local government kept their words to density control? It's been my experience, especially as a resident in the Fairfax/Vienna metro area for the past 10+ years, that the developers end up getting their wishes in the long run. So what's protected today will not be protected tomorrow. Good for the residents of Fulton (where my parents live)! 'Smart Growth' sounds more like a propaganda tool used by the developers to buy out the local governments ...

Peter Whoriskey: I agree that there are many times where local governments have slated land to be low density, then permitted many more homes than anyone had envisioned. Part of the reason is that the home building limits they had in place could not withstand the legal challenges brought by developers. In recent years, local governments have had increasing success in crafting home building limits that withstand those legal challenges.


Fairfax City, Va.: It seems to me the American dream house isn't only "big", it's "new" also.
I keep reading about the housing shortage and seeing pockets of affordability in Fairfax and Montgomery and Prince Georges' counties get overlooked in favor of granite countertops, skylights, and a three-hour round trip commute. Having just bought a 2,300 sq. ft. brick rambler on a quarter acre lot for less than 400k, I am reading your articles with interest and wondering: why aren't more people looking at these old neighborhoods?

Peter Whoriskey: Planners wonder the same thing, as do many others who have found their "dream home" in older neighborhoods. But even if more people find older homes desirable, new homes and new neighborhoods will be built simply because of the growth in population the Washington area is experiencing.


Purcellville, Va.: Peter -- Excellent series on regional development/smart growth. Thank you. I am Bob Grow with the Greater Washington Board of Trade -- still on vacation but teleworking today from home ...The Greater Washington Board of Trade -- the regional chamber of commerce -- is actively advocating "smart growth/transit oriented development" through its Regional Development Task Force. The Board of Trade is also a partner in the Smart Growth Alliance which recognizes outstanding examples of smart growth in our region. We are also working with the Urban Land Institute as it moves forward in early 2005 with its "Reality Check" program. This program is designed to engage area residents and others in helping the region decide where higher density growth should occur. Peter -- What are your observations on how third parties (not area residents or local governments) such as the Board of Trade can be most effective in advocating "smart growth" in our region? Thank you.

Peter Whoriskey: I would venture to say that the Reality Check program may be a good start. For those who don't know, its a program that in February will have developers, planners and environmentalists come together to answer the question: How (and where) will the Washington region accommodate the million or so people that are expected in the next couple of decades? There seem to be very few places where solutions to development and sprawl are sought on a regional basis. This sounds like it could be a platform for one.


Harrisburg, Pa.: Is there, and should there be, in your opinion, a greater mechanism for regional planning authority and, if so, how could such a mechanism be created?

Peter Whoriskey: The quest for a strong regional authority has been the Holy Grail for planners around Washington and other major metro areas for years. Local governments, however, have been loathe to relinquish control. The Maryland Association of Counties, for example, was one of the leading opponents of Smart Growth legislation.


Silver Spring, Md.: Here's a clip from the Post article "Washington's Road to Outward Growth" on 8/9/04. It brought a chuckle to those of us inside the Beltway who often hear about the need to widen close-in roads (not to say there aren't roads that should be widened, it's just funny to hear this quote from a Loudoun politico)

Loudoun Supervisor Sarah R. Kurtz (D-Catoctin) declares the town "besieged" and resists growing pressure to widen the roadway. Asked how she would respond to the West Virginians who will be bottlenecked if she succeeds in keeping Route 9 two lanes, Kurtz responded with a question.

"Do I demolish a historical town for your commute? You have a choice to live anywhere you want. If this is what you chose, this traffic in Hillsboro is what you'll encounter."


Peter Whoriskey: I think this happens all over the region.

Fairfax commuters want Interstate 66 widened in Arlington County.

Loudoun County and Prince William County commuters want roads widened in Fairfax.

And on and on.


Washington, D.C.: Why do you think this type of destructive suburban growth is so unique to the U.S? I recently did some traveling in Europe and was hard pressed to find such communities abroad.

Peter Whoriskey: The U.S./European contrast on sprawl is one that planners debate all the time.

One side says European cities are better because they've invested more in mass transit, and have stricter controls on land - probably so strict they'd never be tolerated in the U.S. That allows them to keep development hemmed in.

The other side says, we in the U.S. only think Europe looks better because when we tour over there, we're only seeing its beautiful central cities and not their ugly contemporary outskirts.


Washington, D.C.: I question the stated assumption that "most people want a big home on a big lot." The reality seems to be quite different. Most single-family homes are on lots of about one-quarter acre. Market research has shown that people care much more about the size of the home than the size of the lot. It is not "the market" that is calling for larger lots, it is the zoning regulations. In fact, there is a much larger market for higher density communities that is being unmet because of zoning regulations.

Peter Whoriskey: There are certainly some Americans who don't want a yard at all. Some do want a big home on a big lot.

I think the question is what is the best way for local governments, who exert control over lot sizes, to accommodate the varied market demands most efficiently.

I haven't seen any simple answers.


Re: Europe Vs. U.S.: I lived in Dublin, Ireland for six months last year and they indeed have their McMansions outside of the city limits. Also, they have the same housing affordability issues: Our spartan two bedroom apartment cost over 400k to purchase!.

Peter Whoriskey: There you go. One side has already weighed in on the U.S./ Europe contrasts on sprawl.


College Park, Md.: I often read about Portland, Oregon as being an American model for land planning. Apparently, they simply drew an imaginary circle around the city and forbid building outside of it -- it sounds so simple. The result is a more livable area with green space within minutes of town. Any thoughts? Can this only be done in areas far from state borders?

Peter Whoriskey: Planners are fascinated by Portland and by many accounts it has reduced the phenomenon we call sprawl.

The problem for Washington, again is getting all of its multiple jurisdictions to relinquish control over land use.


Arlington, Va.: My husband and I were one of those young couples who decided that the only place we could afford to buy was in Manassas. After two years of 90+ minute commutes each way, spending way too much on gas and car repairs, not spending enough time together, we realized that had we not gone for the big new house, we sold up in Manassas in moved to small house in Arlington without walk-in closets and upgraded everything.

Now, we enjoy our lives. It really hasn't cost us much more to live close to work, we're more relaxed, and just happier people.

The commute simply isn't worth it. And if I hear one more person say they moved out to West Virginia or wherever for "the kids", I'd like to know how much time they are now spending with their children, given the massive commute time.

Peter Whoriskey: Realtors I've talked to in the inner suburbs tell me that there are lots of people who have followed your path - moving from Prince William or Stafford or Loudoun to a home closer in to find...inner suburban bliss.


Washington, D.C.: Developers are going to develop and build what sells. Home buyers are going to buy what they want. Local or state govts. can do very little to change this dynamic. Most of residents in the D.C. area to not want to live in a high density development because of the closeness of neighbors etc. We all want the 4 bedroom, 4 bath colonial on a 10,000 sq ft lot. Europeans do not have the same history of property ownership or home ownership a Americans.

Peter Whoriskey: I would add though that the choice is not just between a home on a 10,000 square foot lot and a "high density" project, by which I presume you mean an apartment building. The great hope for "Smart Growth" advocates is that people will find higher density projects such as Kentlands, very desirable.


Washington, D.C.: Shouldn't a housing shortage protect Washington regional homeowners in the event of a bubble market in real estate as mortgage interest rates increase?

Peter Whoriskey: In the short run, I think, economists say that the housing shortage is great for current homeowners. The trouble is that eventually it could hurt the local economy. As home prices rise, more and more employers will look askance at bringing their businesses to this region.


Washington, D.C.: Isn't it difficult to support the statement that everyone wants to live where there is more space and where they have to travel by car (as was quoted in your article today) when the market shows just the opposite: that the smaller homes, closer together, and closer in are much more expensive? If the quote was accurate, wouldn't the market reflect the opposite phenomenon?

Peter Whoriskey: The fact that small homes and small lots command high prices in some neighborhoods doesn't prove that people don't like big houses. A big house in Bethesda or Arlington will command a higher price than a small house.


Laurel, Md.: Has anyone at the Post recently done an analysis on what a Montgomery County address is worth (or Fairfax for Virginians)?

Some friends recently moved into a Montgomery County townhouse about two miles from mine in Prince Georges and paid 75 percent more than than my new neighbors bought for.

Peter Whoriskey: Home buyers clearly value some counties more than others. I'm not sure whether it is merely the address - though that's probably part of it - and part of it is the schools and other amenities that certain counties offer.


Washington, D.C.: I'm surprised your series didn't mention Arlington, yet you'd be hard pressed to find a jurisdiction that's done a better job of accommodating balanced growth -- thousands of new homes, offices, shops, etc., and a huge percentage of them within a quarter-mile of its Metro stations. This is no accident -- when Metro was built, Arlington planned ahead for the changes it wanted over the next 25 years. And the county extensively involves neighborhood groups when new development is planned, making them partners in the process. Arlington has its share of NIMBYs, sure, but because residents are asked for their involvement, they tend to accept density better than jurisdictions that present plans as "done deals."

Peter Whoriskey: Arlington is a case study for many planners in how to plan density, transit, etc. Planning tour groups go through there with oohs and ahs. Very few others have approached the issues with such a long term vision.


Alexandria, Va.: Do you think places like North Arlington are in better shape regarding future housing values because of the hideous commuting situation, or worse shape because of the relatively small residential lots?

Peter Whoriskey: As traffic gets worse, I would venture to say that closer in locations get better. The vast majority of jobs in the metro area are within or around the Beltway.


Washington, D.C.: I think that no discussion of sprawl is complete without an analysis of the role of the mortgage interest tax deduction, which drives Americans to home ownership. This is a stated U.S. policy goal yet, it seems to me, encourages sprawl and discourages people, especially families, from close-in apartment rentals. I also think that this tax treatment is what distinguishes us from unsprawled Europe, which does not discriminate in ownership vs. renting in taxation. What do you think?

Peter Whoriskey: The mortgage deduction certainly discourages renting (by making home ownership easier), and maybe in that way discourages apartment living. But I haven't seen anything definitively linking sprawl and the deduction, and even if it did, others would argue that there are other benefits it offers society.


Response to Washington, D.C.: I, for one, love living in a metro area where I can walk to my grocery store, take the bus to work, and my bike to visit friends -- and if I could get all those things even closer to where I live, great! It's like living on my college campus -- remember how easy it was to get your daily needs?

Anyway, I moved to D.C. looking for a lifestyle that made my life easier, and allowed me to manage my time well. I don't have an hour or more each day to spend in a car. Life's too short.

Peter Whoriskey: You may be a poster child then for Smart Growth advocates.


Bethesda, Md.: I'm personally appalled at the $500k+ price tags on new 2BR 1,000 sq. ft. condos in Bethesda, Friendship Heights, and NW D.C. In speaking to the sales agent at the Cityline condos on Wisconsin, more than 60 percent of the buyers have purchased using 3-5 year interest only payment financing. Isn't this setting up a HUGE bubble burst in 3-5 years when the principle kicks in and lots of people can't afford the full mortgage payments?

Peter Whoriskey: I'm fascinated by this question of the housing bubble. But I haven't wound my way through all of the arguments on either side. I do know that economists say that if indeed we are through a national housing bubble, its bursting in the Washington area may be gentler because there appears to be such a strong demand for homes due to job growth.


Arlington, Va.: Having grown up in Portland, Oregon, allow me to say that Portland has benefitted from a much slower growth pattern. It's easier to plan for growth when it happens slowly and steadily.

Additionally, I've noticed that many of the smart growth developments located in Portland are also located in Arlington, i.e., mixed use retail/residential, mass transit, bike lanes ...

So here's my question: How come the rest of Virginia refuses to adopt these policies? I think Fairfax county could be a much better community, if they would build dense mixed use buildings directly around all the Metro stops. You could accommodate the growing population without significantly adding to the traffic on the road.

Peter Whoriskey: Fairfax has long been roundly criticized by planners for failing to concentrate development at its Metro stops - maybe in large part because they've lagged so far behind its neighbor, Arlington County.

But Fairfax leaders that I've talked to believe its unrealistic to hope that Fairfax could become like Arlington. Its much bigger, much more spread out, and Metro stops aren't as handy for everyone.


Arlington, Va.: Would you agree that part of what drives sprawl is, frankly, snobbery? There are certain areas that may have lovely, affordable options, but due to prejudices (accurate or otherwise), are automatically ruled out by most homeowners. I'm thinking Prince Georges County (even Glendening found that out, as evidenced in your article today, when he tried to revitalize the Route 1 corridor), Manassas, and even "South Arlington."

Peter Whoriskey: Good question. More development in Prince Georges, which counts as an inner suburb, likely would mean much less sprawl elsewhere.

The reasons it hasn't happened are complicated.


Peter Whoriskey: Well thanks for the questions. I enjoyed it.


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