Rural America's new problem: handling sprawl
In Joplin, Mo., and elsewhere, an influx of newcomers alters landscape - and taxes septic systems.
In their quest to get away from it all, Americans are gobbling up land faster than their population numbers are growing. They've moved to the suburbs, and built beyond the suburbs. Now, they're pushing into America's remote countryside.Skip to next paragraph
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Call it heartland homesteading, Part 2. Some small towns are growing so fast they're outpacing their big-city cousins.
While struggling rural communities welcome such growth, they face unfamiliar challenges. Their governments are ill equipped to control the new development. And some local observers and officials worry the housing boom will erode natural areas, challenge the infrastructure and finances of their communities, and destroy the rural character. "You almost have to rename sprawl," says Harry Rogers, executive director of the Harry S. Truman Coordinating Council, a regional association of local governments here in Joplin, Mo. "There's urban sprawl. This is rural sprawl."
Missouri, in fact, represents trends taking place around the country. Joplin and the state's three other smaller metro areas grew faster during the 1990s than the state's two largest metro areas - Kansas City and St. Louis - according to a new report on Missouri growth patterns released Sunday by the Brookings Institution in Washington. More telling, unincorporated, "open country" areas of the state saw population rise an average 12.3 percent. That's 50 percent faster than the population growth in Missouri's cities and towns.
The effects are especially telling in Joplin's outlying areas. There, some 3,500 new housing permits were issued during the '90s for unincorporated areas, according to the Brookings report. That trumps the totals for either the city of Joplin itself (2,979) or its surrounding towns (3,079).
The result is a thinning and spreading of population that looks all too familiar to smart-growth advocates: While Joplin's metro population grew 16.5 percent between 1982 and 1997, its urbanized land expanded at more than double that rate - 40.6 percent, according to Brookings. That's 23 square miles of rural land converted to urban use, which carries hidden costs, smart-growth experts say.
"There are bills coming due for this in states that don't have a lot to spend right now," says Mark Muro, a senior policy analyst at Brookings. "We think this is a problem that rural counties need to get out in front of."
Indeed, a few local officials are speaking out. "Hopefully, before we have a disaster, some change in planning is going to occur," says Mr. Rogers. "Some level of involvement in the unincorporated areas has to occur because the conflicts will be so great."
But such voices are clearly in the minority. Neither of the two counties that make up Joplin's unincorporated metro area have planning, let alone zoning. That's because, according to state law, citizens have to vote to give county commissioners that power. And the last time Jasper County (the more developed of the two counties) put the issue on the ballot, it was soundly defeated.
"We have a strongly independent bunch of people down here," says Tony Moehr of the Jasper County Health Department.