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Sprawl, Schmall... Give Me More Development

If you think four-letter words are dirty and nasty, how about that six-letter word: sprawl.

To the doom and gloom crowd, "sprawl" ranks right up there with the plague, leprosy, and the French.

Well, let me state it unequivocally: I love sprawl.  I need it.  I promote it.  Oakland County can't get enough of it.  Are you getting the picture?
 
Sprawl is not evil. In fact, it is good. It is the inevitable result of a free people exercising their cherished, constitutionally protected rights as individuals to pursue their dreams when choosing where to live, where to work, where to educate, and where to recreate.

Let's stop the hysteria and honestly ask ourselves what is sprawl?  "Sprawl" is the  unfortunate pejorative title government planners give to economic development that takes place in areas they can't control. In reality, "sprawl" is new houses, new school buildings, new plants, and new office and retail facilities.  "Sprawl" is new jobs, new hope and the fulfillment of lifelong dreams. It's the American Dream unfolding before your eyes.

Today, if a company pulls up stakes, abandons a suburban location and moves into the central city (often doubling or tripling the commute time for its employees), the anti-American Dream doom-and- gloomers call it "economic revitalization," and they praise it.
But if a company, a residential builder, or a family moves out into the suburbs, it's condemned by the anti-American Dreamers. "It's sprawl," they hiss, "it's bad."  They demand new laws be imposed turning local control over to state government planners charged with discouraging, containing, shutting down, stopping and reversing growth outside central cities.

The anti-American Dreamers would have you believe that suburban growth is at the root of all problems that beset our cities, both in Michigan and across our country.  They seem to believe that citizens left thriving cities, and that it was their departure that caused high crime, high taxes, invisible public services, and failing public school systems.

Anybody who believes that line of thinking is taking denial to a whole new level. Sprawl did not cause the decline of the cities. Cities declined because they squandered their assets. High crime rates, high taxes, failing schools, foul air and a lack of open green spaces forced people to move.

Sprawlers, like me, simply wanted a home with green grass on a safe, well maintained street, a quality neighborhood school that actually educated their children, a good job, nearby parks and recreational spaces, and a local government that actually delivers the services their taxes paid for. In other words, they wanted a place like today's Oakland County.

Some of the more disingenuous anti-Dreamers complain that we are blacktopping Oakland County. They claim that our farms and forestland is being gobbled up by developers, those nasty people who build single family homes instead of high density housing projects.  They are concerned that Oakland County, and indeed all of America, will soon be one big Blockbuster parking lot.  But the facts refute their hysterical myths.

First, the truth is that any responsible examination of Oakland County's robust, vital and life-sustaining development clearly shows that the sky is not falling. Oakland County's satisfied residents, responsible business leaders, and the elected and appointed officials of our 62 cities, villages and townships have done a good job as stewards of Oakland's 910 square miles.

This is demonstrated by how we have developed our land resources.

Check it out: single family homes, a primary goal for many families seeking their share of the American Dream, take up 38.5 percent of the total land in Oakland County. Vacant land is the next largest land use, at 13.6 percent. Recreation and conservation uses (permanently set aside) follow at 13.3 percent. Lakes and rivers take 5.9 percent of our land area; agriculture uses 4.2 percent, industry follows at 4.2 percent, public spaces use 3.8 percent, and commercial uses account for only 2.1 percent.  (The remaining 13.4 of land use is made up of utility right-of-ways, railroads, and mobile home parks.)  We have a balance of land uses that works!
Secondly, according to readily available research, Michigan today is still 91 percent rural.  And at the present rate of development, Michigan has a couple of millenniums left before it would be a totally urbanized state.

What about the claim that America is being paved over?  Well, the total land in the United States is 3.6 million square miles.  Of that total land mass, some 126,000 square miles are considered urbanized.  This means that less than 3.5 percent of America is "developed" urban area.
 
Are the developers really gathering up all the farm land and forest acres for their own greedy purposes?  Not hardly.  Today there is more forested land in Michigan than there was 100 years ago.  While the amount of land being used for farming is declining, it's not primarily because of development, but rather because of improved productivity within the farming industry itself.

Today, due to technological improvements, we grow and produce more products for market on substantially less land.  In fact, a substantial percentage of our farming produce is now shipped overseas. We still easily feed ourselves as a nation.

One final myth debunker: How much land do we have? Try this: if every man, woman and child in America were forced to relocate to the State of Texas, each of us would have 3/5 acre to call our own.
So the next time you hear the word sprawl, embrace it.  It simply means economic development.  It means jobs.  It means the freedom to choose. It translates into quality of life.

And the next time somebody rubs your face in the word sprawl, take a long, hard look at that person.  Too often you will see some limousine liberal who long ago fled our cities. Now, they want others to go back and take their place. They want to use the power of government to force you back into a city, or a neighborhood, or a housing type they chose not to live in themselves. They want to force you back to the city to help purge themselves of their perceived sin of abandonment.

If you remember nothing else, please remember this: it's all about the pronoun "it".  "It" is the subject of intense competition.  "It" is the most sought after thing in the country.  "It" is called economic development.  If you don't have "it," and someone does, "it" is a bad thing called "sprawl."  Ask yourself, if "it" is so evil, why do they want "it" so badly that they compete for "it," they give tax breaks to attract "it," give incentives and create enterprise zones to secure "it?" You know the answer.

L. Brooks Patterson
Oakland County Executive