Web Sites and Documents >> Hartford Courant News Articles >

State Of Sprawl


Relentless, Helter-Skelter Development Is Chewing Up Connecticut's Landscape At An Appalling Rate And Diminishing Our Quality Of Life In Myriad Ways

October 9, 2005

In 1995, Tolland and Hartford were going in opposite directions. Tolland was on a development tear that would add more than 1,000 homes through 2004. Hartford, on the other hand, began a demolition program to reduce its inventory of more than 800 abandoned buildings.

The city even considered asking the National Guard to help knock down buildings, because some of the structures were being used by squatters and drug addicts. The boom in Tolland and the bust in Hartford are opposite sides of the same coin: sprawl in Connecticut.

In the post-World War II period, and particularly in the past two decades, subdivisions and strip malls have pushed through the inner suburbs to what had been quiet, rural communities - scenic farming towns or small manufacturing villages that hadn't changed much in a century or more.

They are changing now. The 2000 census showed dozens of small rural towns in both the eastern and western parts of Connecticut growing at a breakneck rate, while population fell in four of the state's five largest cities. In the eastern part of state, for example, there were 10-year population increases of 33 percent in Colchester; 28 percent in East Hampton; 24 percent in East Haddam; and 22 percent in Hebron, in a decade when the state's overall population grew only three percent. Many of these towns and others have been adding 100 homes or more a year for several years.

Nearly all of this development is sprawl - ill-planned, low-density, auto-dependent, single-family residential or strip mall construction on what was forest or farmland. From 1997 to 2002, the state lost 12 percent of its farmland, nearly 50,000 acres, the highest percentage of lost farms among the 50 states, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data.

Much of this development has come without concurrent population growth. From 1970 to 2000, according to the Connecticut Metropatterns study by demographer Myron Orfield, the state's population grew by 12 percent but the amount of land in residential use increased by 102 percent.

Countless residents have come to see that their towns are at a crossroads. So is the state. Sprawl may bring the dream houses that some people want, but it comes at a cost only slowly being appreciated. Sprawl carries the expense of building new infrastructure and the waste of the old. It diminishes open lands that support agriculture, water supplies, wildlife habitat and the traditional visual character of the Connecticut countryside. It promotes driving and fuel consumption and increases the cost of services. It isolates poor and senior citizens, and limits housing variety.

"Sprawl is the most serious environmental problem facing Connecticut," said Karl Wagener, executive director of the state's Council on Environmental Quality.

To date, nearly 20 states have mounted serious anti-sprawl efforts. Connecticut is just starting. The state has been slow to respond to this self-inflicted wound.

How Sprawl Happened

In 1950, Connecticut was as generations remembered it: a land of a few mid-size cities, some smaller ones, and towns and villages in a countryside full of farms and woods.

Hartford had nearly 180,000 people. Downtown streets in the capital were crowded; people shopped at G. Fox and bopped at the State Theater.

But change was coming. Over the next half-century, the city would lose nearly 60,000 residents, and the towns in the country would boom.

Americans had been pushing out to settle the countryside since the Colonial era. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, "streetcar suburbs" such as West Hartford and Wethersfield began to radiate from core cities. But the real explosion in suburbanization came in the confident days after World War II. In just seven years, from 1946 to 1953, banks provided mortgages for 10 million new homes across the country. Huge subdivisions the size of cities were built along new roads and highways. The new suburbs were celebrated by the new entertainment medium, television, in comedies such as "Ozzie and Harriet" and "Leave It To Beaver."

The reasons for the suburban explosion are plentiful: from the completion of the AC electrical grid and the rise of a consumer culture to racism and an anti-urban bias. The real estate and construction industries had grown strong enough to influence public policy - in the 1920s, they successfully lobbied Congress for a tax deduction on home mortgage interest, according to Yale University Professor Dolores Hayden, author of "Building Suburbia."

But the major factor, the sine qua non of sprawl, was the growing availability of cheap cars and cheap gas. Nothing changed the American landscape like the automobile, because once free of the need for fixed-path transit, development could go anywhere. As the car culture developed, the highway lobby gained the muscle to get its way.

Of the many factors that pushed and pulled people helter-skelter into the suburbs and exurbs of Connecticut, some are still at work, causing sprawl today. They are:

Government policies. Many Connecticut residents who moved to the suburbs, especially in the 1950s, came from the cities. Many doubtless wanted a suburban Cape Cod-style house with a lawn. But even those who might have stayed in the city were discouraged from doing so.

In the 1930s, banking reforms made it easier for middle-class workers to afford new homes, but government policy virtually assured that those homes would be in the suburbs. The Home Owners Loan Corp., a New Deal program created to stabilize the real estate industry by refinancing mortgages, shamelessly "redlined" urban working-class and ethnic neighborhoods, making it difficult for potential homeowners to buy in cities. The Federal Housing Authority followed this lead.

After World War II, millions of Americans took advantage of FHA and Veterans Administration mortgages to move to the suburbs. The federal government and the states provided the means to get there when they constructed the interstate highway system at the behest of the powerful highway and automotive industries. These highways were often built right through cities, as I-84 and I-91 were in Hartford, fragmenting them and demolishing historic buildings and urban neighborhoods.

Also, tax incentives, such as the 1950s rule on "accelerated depreciation," encouraged the building of suburban malls at the expense of traditional downtowns.

While the federal government was subsidizing single-family homes in the suburbs, it was building housing projects in cities. These eventually became home to the very poor, increasing the pattern of racial and economic segregation that is characteristic of sprawl.

Also, newly adopted zoning laws worked against the best interests of cities. The separation of uses - forcing industrial or commercial districts away from residential districts - sometimes went too far and made once-vibrant urban neighborhoods sterile and uninteresting. At the same time, many suburban subdivisions were built before towns passed zoning laws.

Finally, state government in Connecticut aided sprawl by moving state workers out of Hartford offices to suburban office parks in Rocky Hill and elsewhere.

Today, despite a growing concern over the effects of sprawl, government continues to subsidize it, building roads, schools and infrastructure in the hinterlands.

Poor planning. Although the forces pushing and pulling people out of cities made some growth inevitable, it didn't have to be as chaotic as it has been. It could have been planned, if the state had any meaningful land-use planning. Alas, there isn't much beyond site planning. Nearly all land-use decisions in the state are made on the local level, giving Connecticut 169 approaches to land use.

Locally, especially in small towns most recently hit by sprawl, planning is iffy. In some cases, a town's plan of conservation and development isn't consistent with the zoning map, or isn't updated every decade, as state law requires. Some towns don't have town planners, some have outdated zoning codes; three small Connecticut towns - Eastford, Bethlehem and Sterling - still do not have zoning.

Connecticut has had regional planning since before World War II, but the regional planningagencies have no statutory authority to review or alter local plans or even to make their own plans. The current regional plans are essentially compilations of local plans. Without regional standards, natural features such as forests or ridgelines may be protected in one town but developed in the next.

The one comprehensive plan that's available is the Conservation and Development Policies Plan, published every five years by the state Office of Policy and Management. The 2005-10 plan offers a growth-management strategy that balances economic growth with conservation of the environment.

The problem is that no one but state agencies has to follow it. Its authority has been narrowly limited to telling state agencies where they should or shouldn't build or expand. If towns followed the plan, we'd be attacking sprawl.

The state took a baby step this year when the legislature passed a law requiring that local planners consider whether their plans are consistent with regional and state plans of conservation and development.

Tax structure. The Connecticut Metropatterns Report, the Blue Ribbon Commission on Property Tax Burdens and Smart Growth Incentives, and other studies all reach the same conclusion: Connecticut towns are so heavily reliant on the property tax that they make bad land-use decisions to compete for property tax revenue.

For example, Canton had been growing quickly, but was still one of the smallest towns with a self-contained school system. As its population grew, so did the school budget. So a few years ago, the town abetted the sale of a lovely golf course on Route 44 for a shopping mall and didn't act to protect a historic site across Route 44, a seven-acre farmstead settled by the founder of the town in 1796, now also ticketed for commercial development. Town officials said they needed the property tax revenue.

So do other towns that practice what is called "fiscal zoning," land-use policies designed to grow the grand list, often at the expense of orderly development. Many towns opt for expensive homes on large lots to generate more tax revenue. "Active adult" developments without children are also becoming more popular.

"Our tax system, which is over-dependent on property taxes, virtually mandates that communities zone in tax and sprawl generators, such as shopping strips and office parks, and zone out all but expensive, large-lot housing," said Robert Yaro of New Canaan, head of the Regional Plan Association, who has done two studies of sprawl in Connecticut.

What's Wrong With Sprawl

It would be wrong to say that the postwar movement to the suburbs was a bad thing, because for countless Connecticut families it wasn't. People from Hartford or New Haven who moved to Tolland or Guilford bought houses, made friends, raised families and got involved in their communities. But the continual, relentless development of once-rural areas has an economic, environmental and social cost. The costs of sprawl include:

Waste and expense. Hartford has an extensive system of roads, sewers and other infrastructure. To rebuild it in the suburbs is inherently wasteful. Because suburbs spread out, it's more expensive to build and maintain infrastructure and deliver services there.

A study of sprawl in Pennsylvania, done in 2000 for the advocacy group 10,000 Friends of Pennsylvania, found that towns spend up to $120 million a year more than they would if more compact forms of development were used. Avoiding sprawl can save up to 25 percent of the cost of building roads, utilities and schools.

A study the same year, commissioned by Grow Smart Rhode Island, found that if the state stayed on its course of sprawl, taxpayers would shoulder a $1.5 billion burden in the next 20 years. Half that expense would be for lost tax revenue in decaying urban centers, and 30 percent would be for building and maintaining extra infrastructure.

The consumption of land. From 1988 to 2002, Connecticut lost 100,000 acres of farmland and 300,000 acres of forested land to development, according to a 2002 study by the Harvard Graduate School of Design titled "Promoting Smart Growth in Connecticut." Only about 11 percent of the state's land is still in active agricultural use, and the percentage is dropping by 2 percent a year, twice the national average.

A study by the University of Connecticut's Center for Land Use Education and Research, covering 1985 to 2002, found the state is losing an average of 18 acres of forest per day and adding 12 acres of buildings, parking lots and roads.

If this continues unabated, the consequences are almost unthinkable. Most of the state will be an undifferentiated mishmash of subdivisions and malls. Much of today's privately owned woodland will be gone, few farms will be left and the Connecticut landscape, which has inspired residents and visitors for centuries, will be compromised. And once it's gone, it isn't coming back.

More driving. That means more congestion, lost time, pollution and energy use. With development stretching farther from urban centers, the median commuting time in Connecticut increased 16 percent, to 24 minutes, from 1990 to 2000, according to the Harvard study. The number of "vehicle miles traveled" on local roads increased 46 percent from 1986 to 1995, according to the Regional Plan Association. Most sprawl settlers have to drive because low-density, spread-out development discourages the use of transit. Fully 80 percent of the state's 1.6 million workers drive to work alone.

Traffic congestion on I-95 has gotten so bad that it inhibits the flow of goods by truck, which led consultant Michael Gallis to opine that unless congestion is abated, the state will become an economic cul-de-sac. That report was issued seven years ago. Since then, traffic has gotten worse.

An increase in air and water pollution. Although it has improved somewhat in the past 20 years, Connecticut's air quality is still worse than most other states, and motor vehicles are a major cause. Cars, SUVs and other light trucks emit more than 40 percent of airborne toxic chemicals, according to the Connecticut Fund for the Environment.

Sprawl also challenges the quality of streams and rivers, because of the loss of vegetation and increase in paved surfaces. "In Connecticut, more miles of river are impaired by pollution from the land that goes into runoff and storm sewers than by industrial and municipal pipe discharges combined," according to the 2004 annual report of the state Council on Environmental Quality.

Though it has received little publicity, the most serious environmental aspect of sprawl may be to the water supply. The legislative Blue Ribbon Commission on Property Tax Burdens and Smart Growth Incentives said that sprawl may "overtax water supplies, aquifers and delivery systems."

Lower housing production. Douglas I. Foy, Massachusetts' secretary of Commonwealth development and former head of the national Conservation Law Foundation, said sprawl largely limited housing production in his state to "McMansions," large houses on large suburban lots. The result was many fewer units than could have been built in more compact design, and a shortage of affordable housing.

Connecticut followed a similar path to a similar bind. A blue ribbon commission said five years ago that the state was short 68,000 units of affordable housing. Since then, the price of housing has increased 60 to 80 percent, while wages have gone up 13 to 15 percent. With the price of land continually bid up, it has become uneconomical for developers to build affordable housing. McMansions on suburban greenfields are the easiest and most profitable homes to build, and so they continue to be built.

Many believe the lack of affordable housing is a main reason for the anemic growth of the state's workforce. From 1995 to 2000, the state's workforce grew by only 0.2 percent, while New York's increased by 6.3 percent.

The legislature took a significant step toward solving the affordable housing crisis this year when it created a $100 million fund. Where and how the money will be used remains to be decided.

Obesity and other health problems. An extensive Rand Corp. study released last year, using data from more than 8,600 people in 38 metropolitan areas, found that those who lived in compact, walkable communities were less likely to report chronic health problems such as obesity, abdominal and digestive problems, migraines and arthritis than people who lived in sprawl suburbs. Researchers believe the result is mostly related to exercise, or lack thereof.

Social isolation. The first wave of young couples who moved to the suburbs after World War II are now, if they are still in the earthly choir, well into their 70s or 80s. As they become unable to drive, they become isolated. Many seek a place with services and amenities within walking distance. These needs won't be met if we continue to build only suburban McMansions.

At the same time, the pull of middle-class people out of cities has left the very poor behind. The loss of middle-class role models and community leadership, along with the loss of manufacturing jobs that cities such as Hartford and Bridgeport could once offer, has exacerbated the problems of drugs, violence, teen pregnancy and other pathologies that make it so difficult to revive the urban areas.

For all of this, Connecticut is still a desirable place to live. But it won't be if sprawl continues unabated. It's time to do something about it.

What To Do

When it comes to battling sprawl, Oregon was way ahead of the other states. In 1979, environmentalists teamed with Republican Gov. Tom McCall to create urban growth boundaries around the state's urban areas. Though a few other states have followed the Oregon model, the idea of government-mandated growth limits is highly controversial, even in Oregon, and a tough political sell.

In the past decade, a dozen states have taken a different tack and offered incentives for towns and regions to implement "smart growth" measures that would channel development into town centers and transit corridors. This approach is sometimes known as the "Maryland model" because it was pioneered by Gov. Parris M. Glendening in the 1990s.

Connecticut has yet to embrace either model. Though it's been obvious for years that poorly planned, low-density development was devouring the countryside, the state has been slow to react. Gov. John G. Rowland, first elected in 1994, was interested in large capital projects in cities. He did champion an open-space acquisition program in 1999, when the state was last in the nation in acquiring open land, but never developed a comprehensive program to confront the reasons open space was being lost.

Nor has anyone else. Despite the efforts of a small coterie of interested legislators in the past decade, few bills have been passed. The handful of new tools these bills made available - zoning protection for village districts, rural cluster development, multi-town planning, revenue sharing actions - have rarely been used.

This year, the legislature put money into smart growth when it passed a bill to create a permanent fund to conserve farmland and open space, preserve historic buildings and construct affordable housing through a $30 filing fee on real estate transactions. Another law encourages - but doesn't require - officials to make local, regional and state plans of conservation and development consistent with one another. That tepid law also asks towns to identify areas where "transit accessible, pedestrian-oriented mixed use development" might be built.

These are preliminary steps toward an incentive-based anti-sprawl program. But Connecticut still has a long way to go to reverse its decades-long pattern of poorly planned, helter-skelter development. If it's to happen, there must be changes at both the local and state levels. There are land-use groups in many towns, and a new statewide organization called 1,000 Friends of Connecticut, pushing for change. But history tells us that nothing will happen without the leadership of the governor.

In each of the states that have embraced some kind of growth-management program, it was the governor's baby. Democrats such as Mr. Glendening, Janet Napolitano of Arizona and Jennifer Granholm of Michigan and Republicans such as Jeb Bush of Florida, Mitt Romney of Massachusetts and Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania all led the fights to control sprawl in their states.

If Connecticut is to get a handle on growth, Gov. M. Jodi Rell or her successor must take the lead, articulate the vision and make it a top priority. This is the threshold step. Beyond that, the governor and other state leaders should:

Continue the educational programs begun by groups such as the CenterEdge Coalition, a Connecticut group that has held scores of meetings to publicize the findings of the Connecticut Metropatterns Report. That report says that the state's pattern of development has led to economic stagnation and social isolation.

Do a build-out study. Sprawl is a slow-motion crisis. People need to understand its implications to support change. One major step, as recommended by the Blue Ribbon Commission on Property Tax Burdens and Smart Growth Incentives, would be a "build-out" study showing what the state would look like if development patterns continue. This should provide a ghost-of-Christmas-yet-to-come glimpse at what Connecticut will look like if present development patterns continue.

Create meaningful incentives. If the state chooses to follow the "Maryland model" - though the Oregon growth-boundary plan shouldn't be dismissed out of hand - the governor and lawmakers should then create a series of incentives that would encourage development in town centers, employment areas and at transit stops. The incentives could be grants, loans, tax breaks or some form of zoning override. There should be an incentive for towns to make their plans of conservation and development consistent with the state's plan.

Also, the state should focus on preserving historic assets such as 19th-century factory buildings, entire mill villages, well-preserved fishing harbors and heritage roadways. Most of the state's highway infrastructure spending should be used to repair existing roads and bridges.

In short, the state's money would go into the built areas. There would be no more subsidy for sprawl.

Change the tax system. Everyone who studies this issue reaches the conclusion that the state's heavy emphasis on property taxes to pay for municipal government leads to poor and ultimately self-defeating land-use decisions. Towns give up beautiful green space to jam in big box stores simply because they need the tax revenue. Some spending - most likely in education - ought to be shifted to other taxes, as Michigan, Texas and some otherstates are doing. We need to do something different. One radical idea is to have the state collect all business and commercial property taxes and return the money to the towns as needed.

Make a real investment in transit and transit-oriented development. Gov. Rell was rightly applauded for committing $1.2 billion to transportation. But that was mostly to upgrade the existing system, which is inadequate. Connecticut has to bite the bullet and make a real investment in transportation. Gov. Romney of Massachusetts just committed $31 billion to transportation over 20 years, nearly half of which is earmarked for mass transit.

When the I-84 project in the Waterbury area is finished, and the I-95 widening east of Branford is concluded, the state's highway system will be essentially completed. It's already congested. To stave off gridlock, we must shift people onto trains and buses.

One way to achieve that goal is population density near the stations. People living near train and bus stations lessen the need for more cars and highway lanes and draw development away from rural greenfields. For example, nearly every suburban stop of the Washington, D.C., Metro has become a pod of housing, stores and offices. One way to make this happen in Connecticut would be to earmark the $100 million affordable housing fund for transit-oriented development.

The governor may want to create a super-agency that oversees transportation, planning and all other aspects of development, as Massachusetts has done. Short of that, a reorganization of the state Department of Transportation might temper the department's tendency to solve the state's transportation woes by widening the highways.

Strengthen the cities and inner suburbs. As should be obvious, if cities and inner suburbs are strong and healthy, people are more likely to live there and not join the sprawl parade. State leaders need to look for opportunities to strengthen these core areas. In recent years, for example, inner-ring suburbs have been penalized by the state's school funding formula. That shouldn't be. If the West Hartfords and West Havens don't thrive, there will invariably be more pressure on the small towns farther away from the cities.

Study regionalism. People in Connecticut aren't wastrels, as a rule. The costs of municipal government continue their steep climb. If some services can be provided more efficiently and inexpensively on a regional basis, people will listen. It makes sense to have stronger regional planning, and to give regional planning agencies real authority. Regional revenue sharing, as practiced in Minneapolis, Pittsburgh and some other cities, may solve some problems for Connecticut. The governor ought to empanel a study that would answer these questions.

Help the towns. Hartford lawyer Dwight Merriam, a nationally recognized expert in land-use law, said the state should increase its planning capacity and have a "sprawl-buster" office that helps towns plan and manage growth. The state could offer such things as model zoning and subdivision codes, Geographic Information Systems services and planning assistance to towns that don't have planners.

On The Local Level

While the state wrestles with the big picture, sprawl actually happens on the local level, one public hearing at a time. Since nearly all land-use decisions in Connecticut are made at the local level, town officials can stop sprawl if they work at it.

Start with planning. Towns are supposed to update their plans of conservation and development every 10 years. Some aren't particularly assiduous about it. East Hampton's plan was last published in 1989, using some 1980 data. While a new plan is in the works, the town is being overrun with development, with almost 1,100 new homes either finished or in the pipeline from 1998 through 2004. In some instances, town plans are not consistent with local zoning. In others, zoning codes are outdated.

Thomas Byrne of the Connecticut Federation of Planning and Zoning Agencies says towns should update their plans all the time, not every 10 years. "Make decisions on what you want your town to look like, what kind of development you want and where you want it," he said. Then make zoning consistent with planning.

Plan the development for the developer. When towns are able to control some or all of the land in a deal, they begin to set parameters for development and offer incentives to developers who'll sign on to build the project. This is known as "getting the developer to eat the carrot." The Blue Back Square project in West Hartford is a variation of this idea. There, the town offered to sell some of its land, plus provide help in bonding, to a developer who would buy an adjacent tract for mixed-use development in West Hartford Center.

Examine the effect of local zoning. Some towns use large lot, 2- to 3-acre zoning in the belief that it reduces sprawl, when in fact it actually encourages more development. The lots are too small for anything besides homes, and a developer needs more land to build a certain number of houses to make a profit.

Educate members of land-use boards. In most towns, members of land-use boards are volunteers from all walks of life. While many gain experience on the job, and sometimes ask consultants for assistance, they can be overmatched by teams of high-powered lawyers, architects, engineers and consultants that big developers can assemble. Obviously, the better trained the board members are, the better job the board will do.

This list is not meant to be exclusive. The private sector, for example, can also play a major role in fighting sprawl by building the kind of compact, walkable, mixed-use developments that are both lively and easy on the environment. Land trusts and other local groups are seeking to buy and preserve important parcels.

Sprawl is the most serious challenge facing the state. Connecticut's leaders can address it, and manage the state's growth smartly and sensibly, if they have the imagination and the political will.

To that end, this page will continue to highlight sprawl issues. We will ask all candidates for governor to explain how they will attack the sprawl problem if elected. Sprawl must be a centerpiece of the 2006 campaign. We'd like to hear your thoughts as well.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
Powered by Hartford Public Library  

Includes option to search related Hartford sites.

Advanced Search
Search Tips

Can't Find It? Have a Question?