Academic journal article Vanderbilt Law Review

Putting a Stop to Sprawl: State Intervention as a Tool for Growth Management

Academic journal article Vanderbilt Law Review

Putting a Stop to Sprawl: State Intervention as a Tool for Growth Management

Article excerpt

I. INTRODUCTION

"Sprawl is America's most lethal disease."1 Although such a statement appears exaggerated upon first consideration, both the scope of urban sprawl and its attendant consequences support the suggestion that sprawl threatens the vitality of the United States. For example, in California, sprawl has reached such a dangerous level that one of the nation's largest banks publicly warned of the potential devastation: "Sprawl has created enormous costs that California can no longer afford. Ironically, unchecked sprawl has shifted from an engine of California's growth to a force that now threatens to inhibit growth and degrade the quality of our life."2 The costs California faces - including damage to the environment, depletion of fiscal resources, and deterioration of inner cities - are not unique but rather similarly jeopardize the future of states throughout the nation.

Sprawl, defined as "the process in [sic] which the spread of development across the landscape far outpaces population growth,"3 is generally identified by an "I-know-it-when-I-see it" approach.4 As a result, it is helpful to consider what sprawl is not in order to understand what sprawl is. Specifically, sprawl is not the traditional American neighborhood, best characterized by mixed-use communities in which residents can walk to satisfy their daily needs.5 Rather, sprawl consists of developments that rapidly consume available land beyond the outermost boundaries of established cities - developments in which citizens cannot walk to work or to the grocery store but are required to drive almost everywhere.6 Such developments typically evoke images of large housing subdivisions and freestanding cookiecutter homes, strip malls, big box stores such as Target or Walmart, parking lots, and six-lane highways. Sprawl effectively has five distinct components, none of which overlaps with any other: housing subdivisions, shopping centers, office parks, civic institutions, and roadways.7 Ultimately, sprawl's characteristic leapfrog growth pattern almost always results in low-density, single-use developments on the fringes of established cities.8

Sprawl affects metropolitan areas throughout the United States, characterizing the growth of cities from Atlanta all the way to Phoenix.9 Even Montana, known for its wide open spaces, has not escaped the effects of sprawling metropolitan areas.10 Over the past sixty years, states have witnessed a migration away from cities as Americans have relocated to suburban communities. Fifteen percent of the U.S. population lived in the suburbs in 1940, but by 2000 that number had increased to sixty percent.11 While fifty-five million Americans resided in suburbs in 1950, 141 million resided in suburbs in 2000. 12 Most alarmingly, this trend has accelerated in recent years as illustrated by the 17.7 percent increase in suburban population in the 1990s, compared with eight percent growth in central cities during that same time period.13

As the source of most zoning and land use regulation, local governments have been criticized for the proliferation of sprawl. In 1926, the U.S. Department of Commerce issued the Standard State Zoning Enabling Act ("SZEA"), which provides a common statutory basis for zoning.14 Most states have based their own zoning legislation upon the SZEA, under which state governments delegate their police power to local governments.15 Local governments then enact zoning regulations "for the purpose of promoting health, safety, morals, or the general welfare of the community," ostensibly "in accordance with a comprehensive plan."16 Traditionally, local governments subscribed to the theory that the intermingling of land uses would affect the health and safety of citizens negatively.17 Thus, most local regulations required the strict segregation of residential, commercial, industrial, and agricultural land uses.18 Such exclusive zoning by district and the separation of land uses within the city led to the development patterns characteristic of sprawl. …

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