Measuring the cost of growth

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Houses may be cozier than an office complex, a wide-open field, or a stand of cedars - but a recent University of Georgia study says they don't set municipal budgets at ease.

In four Georgia counties, housing developments were far more costly than either business development or farms and forests. Though commercial, industrial, and natural space brought in more money in taxes than they lost through the cost of public services such as schools, road maintenance, and emergency protection, subdivisions were a net loss in 1999.

The infrastructure necessary to support and satisfy humans at home is far more elaborate than the network for farmland or business: Georgia housing developments cost from $1.23 to $2.07 for every dollar of revenue they brought in.

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"Cows don't go to school, and tractors don't dial 911," explained Gerry Cohn, director of the Southeast Region for the American Farmland Trust, to Georgia Extension Service news editor Faith Peppers.

The cost difference is due, in large part, to the financial drain of schools - but even discounting the price of education, new developments are a fiscal loss. In Cherokee County, Ga., for instance, the service cost for housing, even without schools, was $1.44 per $1 of revenue, but a mere 31 cents for business development, and 52 cents for farms and natural landscapes.

Subdivisions, of course, will keep cropping up, encroaching on forests and municipal finances. Jeffrey Dorman, a University of Georgia economics professor who helped direct the study, suggests that new development stick to areas where public service comes at minimal cost, and follow a high-density model to minimize price while preserving green space.

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