Booming Sunbelt Cities reach for growth controls

Energy and other problems are casting some shadows in the Sunbelt area of the United States. In the sunny Southwest, which this month's national census count is expected to document as one of the most rapidly expanding regions in the country, the special problems of growth are bubbling to the surface.

Higher gasoline prices are of particular consequence in the Southwest, where cities are typically more suburban in character and heavily dependent on the automobile.

Record-high interest rates have taken the bloom off construction and real estate development, which are very important to the growth-oriented local economies of the area.

However, the most fundamental change is a growing perception that the "quality of life" that has attracted retirees, job seekers, and working adults from all over the country to the Southwest is threatened.

Interviews with pollsters, social scientists, and politicians in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona confirm that preservation of the wide open frontier feeling and relaxed lifestyles of the region is of rising importance to its inhabitants.

"Increasing numbers of Westerners are shifting away from the exploitive mentality that usually surrounds a boom environment and are now moving toward a deep challenge to the growth ethic itself," surmises Earl De Berge, president of Behavior Research Center in Phoenix.

Here is how rapid growth is having an impact on three key metropolitan areas in the Southwest:

* Phoenix faces the possibility of a residential building moratorium later this summer because its sewer system is inadequate by federal standards for the city's booming 4.5 percent annual population growth.

The Arizona capital now sprawls over 325 square miles and will grow larger through planned annexations. The policy of expansion is aimed at keeping a solid tax base and enabling City Hall to control urban growth in the entire metropolitan region.

"We want to avoid high density and keep an open feeling about the city, which is what has made us so attractive" to newcomers, explains Mayor Margaret T. Hance.

But Mrs. Hance is the first to admit the disadvantages of having a sprawling city, including the fact that it forces residents to depend on automobiles for commuting. Phoenix has begun using an "urban village" concept of planning. Eleven centers will be established around the city, and they will be zoned for commercial and residential building. It is hoped this approach will enable people to live close to their jobs, yet in a suburban-like environment.

Overall, there is an attitude that Phoenix has been growing too rapidly in an unconstrained way. "Quality of life is so important here that even pro-growth advocates feel in some respects we are getting too big," says Jim Haynes, executive vice- president of the Phoenix Chamber of Commerce. "The attitude we take is: There is going to be growth . . . and we need to be sure it is quality growth, not unrestrained sprawl."

* In Albuquerque where most of New Mexico's growth is taking place, "there is a strong feeling that the city is loosing some of its intimacy and charm," Mayor David Rusk says.

Nearly one-third of Albuquerque's 430,000 residents have been in the city five years or less. These newcomers are typically white, young, and highly educated.

Businesses have flocked to the city to tap this skilled labor market, creating a prosperous local economy.

But unemployment among Hispanics and native Americans is still high, and much of the business and retail development that extends out from the city core is an eyesore against the stunning natural setting of desert and mountains.

Mayor Rusk says he believes more careful planning and encouragement of greater participation in local government by neighborhood organizations will help preserve Albuquerque's natural beauty and native character.

* Houston is not known for its physical beauty, but it is nonetheless the nation's fastest-growing major city.

But even in this growth-oriented city, where there is no zoning, inhabitants are increasingly disgruntled over the side effects of rapid expansion.

"The idea that growth is completely a good thing is dissipating," says Jan Van Lohuizen, vice-president of V. Lance Tarrance & Associates, a Houston polling and research firm.

Last summer's gasoline lines helped convince many Houstonians that the city should slow its growth so the snarl of automobile traffic does not get worse, Mr. Van Lohuizen explains.

Mass transit has received growing attention in Houston. Bus service has improved noticably in the past year, and the Metropolitan Transit Authority has begun studying the feasibility of an inter-city commuter rail line.

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