Costs of Sprawl, MN Housing Bust Version

Minnesota Public Radio did a story this week titled:

Housing bust exposes the cost of unplanned growth

Geographers call them “the exurbs.” These are bedroom communities; people here generally commute to the city for work.

Baldwin Township has only 30 or so businesses, but it has more than 2,000 houses.

Driving past one of Baldwin’s many snaking cul de sacs, Town Board Chair Jeff Holm describes the growth as “totally unplanned.” Wherever there was a farmer ready to sell his land, that’s where the housing development went.

“Their location has nothing to do with proximity to transportation routes,” Holm said. “It’s kind of a hodge podge.”

That’s a truth too many decision-makers and tax payers have avoided too long. Way back in 1974, the Real Estate Research Corporation published a three-volume report for HUD and EPA  titled “The Costs of Sprawl”. The study analyzed hypothetical new communities, from high density to low, and for planned vs. unplanned designs. The effort established a baseline for further research, most of which I’ve seen supports the obvious: Sprawl doesn’t pay it’s own way.

In terms of total investment costs, the high density planned community is distinctly lower: 21 percent below the combination mix community and 44 percent below the low density sprawl community. Most of these savings result from differences in development density—savings of about 3 percent of total development costs result from better “planning,” whereas those from increased density amount to 41 percent….

[Executive Summary, 1974 p.3]

I’ve never been to Baldwin Townsip up in Sherburne County, that I know of.  This isn’t anything personal.  I know the County Planner there does the best he can.   It’s really about matching up costs with those that cause the expense.  MPR continues:

[The Township road maintenance supervisor] is pushing the township to make a more aggressive road repair plan, but the costs are daunting. Rebuilding 136th alone could run as high as $2 million — more than 10 times what Baldwin budgeted for road repairs last year.

“People do not pay, generally — in areas like Baldwin Township — the amount of costs in terms of taxes that it would take to maintain the road system they have constructed,” planning consultant Charles Marohn said. “They’re not even close.”

Marohn works with exurban communities around Minnesota and he says they are all facing the same problem: Too much road with too few houses to pay for the upkeep.

What are the options for Baldwin and places like it?

“To be successful and to be prosperous in the long term, you need to have a plan,” said University of Minnesota professor Myron Orfield, who teaches classes on land use planning and smart growth.

Check out more Chuck at StrongTowns Blog.  Good stuff, MPR.

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2 Responses to Costs of Sprawl, MN Housing Bust Version

  1. Cat says:

    Can’t get enough of this community planning stuff. Thanks for sharing your profession with dilettantes like me, JC. Okay, I’m off to strongtowns….

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