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.

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.

One reason for the lack of interest: The Joplin area has not felt the downside of sprawl.

"We haven't lost a lot of prime agricultural land," says Troy Bolander, planning and community development specialist for Joplin. The region also doesn't suffer from traffic jams. "We haven't seen the negative effects at this point."

But here and there, problems are starting to percolate to the surface. Literally.

Because county government has virtually no planning function, the county health department stepped in three years ago with a minimum 0.9-acre lot-size rule for new homes with septic systems. The idea: Smaller lots don't have the capacity to filter waste, which could lead to polluted streams, tainted ground water, and potential public-health problems. (For new developments with seven or more homes, state environmental officials also set minimum lot sizes.)

The health department has seen its costs and personnel triple in the past decade to handle septic-system issues. Now, county officials are considering whether to increase the minimum lot size because as more people move into unincorporated areas, the bigger the population at risk from existing faulty septic systems.

The dynamic works differently in Missouri cities and towns. Typically, they do some planning, and to entice developers to abide by the extra rules, they offer a key benefit: sewer systems. Developers like sewers because it frees them from lot-size requirements for septic systems, which means they can pack more houses on the land.

But when such developments are annexed, the burden can fall heavily - especially on smaller rural communities. Take Oronogo, north of Joplin. During the '90s, its population skyrocketed 64 percent (to 976 residents), and median household income nearly doubled.

The community has declared an informal moratorium on new development and annexation because of infrastructure limits. The wastewater treatment system it shares with two other communities has reached capacity, and it faces a $2.6 million bill to expand its water system. Just the first phase of the water expansion would nearly double residents' monthly water bills, the community's consulting engineering firm estimates.

Now a local developer is talking about a new annexation, which would require running a sewer line one mile to his Country Cardinal Estates. Extending the sewer line would cost roughly $50 a foot, although developers typically shoulder the cost.

Developers argue that they're not encouraging sprawl, but simply meeting an important demand for choice in housing. "People do like to be out of the city," says Dave Morton, the developer of Country Cardinal Estates and several other nearby projects. "We're offering 2-1/2-, 3-acre tracts so you don't have overpopulation."

It's not clear how Oronogo officials would react to Mr. Morton's proposal to annex his development a mile away. But "a lot of people along here would vote against it," says Bill Cook, who moved into his new home in Country Cardinal Estates a year ago to escape the taxes and inefficiency of Oronogo. "Out here you've got county stuff," he says, before roaring off in his SUV past a trailer park and a cow munching on hay.

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