Corralling Sprawl

For decades Americans have pushed their residences ever farther from city centers. Suburban rings kept extending, eventually spawning the "exurbs," fringe settlements with the barest connection to the old downtown or even to older suburbs.

This pattern has had a cost that's only now beginning to generate an organized response. Most notably, a number of states and counties have launched vigorous campaigns to preserve remaining open space. At the same time, farmland preservationists have put forward plans to change growth patterns, clustering housing and shopping in already developed areas to avoid its spill onto prime agricultural acreage.

A few examples:

* New Jersey's governor and legislature are considering using a gas tax hike to fund protection for some of that state's 2 million remaining open acres. Gov. Christine Todd Whitman observed, "While I am supportive of growth... We've also got to understand that once land is gone, it's gone forever."

* In Ohio, Michigan, and other states with urban-rural mixes, alliances are starting to form between older suburbs and outlying rural counties. Officials in the established inner suburbs see state and federal money diverted into newer developments further out for roads, schools, and sewers. Rural residents see farms, and the lifestyle they support, disappearing. Both hope to reverse the pattern of tax dollars generated in more densely populated areas going disproportionately to mushrooming outer suburbs.

* Maryland has launched a "Smart Growth" policy that seeks to focus development on areas where infrastructure is already in place. Developers intent on open areas have to foot the roads and sewers bill themselves. "If someone wants to build new houses or offices or stores, we want that person to look at the bottom line and find it to be much more profitable to build in existing towns rather than contribute to sprawl and farmland loss," say Gov. Parris Glendening.

* In the Far West, where land pressures are often less acute, a coalition of farm organizations, builders, and businesses is lobbying for more compact development in the Fresno, Calif., area. Fresno is a fast-growing city in the middle of California's Central Valley, an agricultural cornucopia. Protecting the highly productive acres surrounding the city has become a priority for the American Farmland Trust and other private agencies committed to fight sprawl.

That's only a sampling. All such initiatives face strong opposition. Many developers, as well as those who represent politically potent outer suburbs in legislatures or on county commissions, will cling to the old patterns. And many families continue to gravitate to the new homes built farther and farther from urban centers.

But those habits can be changed, mainly through reordering economic incentives. There are clear advantages to more compact designs for growth - including established services, reasonable commutes, and nearness to cultural attractions.

But the biggest plus, certainly, is the potential for turning around a grim trend: the loss, each year, of nearly 1 million acres of prime US farmland, most of it to sprawl.

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