Quantified: The Price of Sprawl in Florida

Click on the image to see how sprawl impacts individual communities.

We all know sprawl is costly to local communities. Roads, schools, sewers: It all adds up.

But the total price-tag is hard to determine, and that ambiguity undermines efforts at reform. What qualifies as sprawl? How much additional infrastructure is needed to support it?

That’s why it’s exciting that a group of concerned Florida homeowners has tackled this difficult question. Priceofsprawl.com shows that Florida communities pay dearly for “growth” that is often sold as a win-win. In reality, every dollar generated by new development in Florida costs taxpayers $1.34-$2.45. The more rural the setting, the higher the cost.

This project, presented as an interactive map, allows Floridians to see how sprawling development affects their local taxes and home values. Numbers were determined using existing impact studies and local comprehensive plans.

Just scroll over Lee County and the map will tell you that property values are down 54 percent here since 2006. Thirteen percent of the county’s homes are vacant. In fact, this region of Florida — the Greater Fort Myers area — has been something of a poster child for the foreclosure crisis. “There is arguably no single housing market with a worse long-term outlook than southwest Florida, and the Cape Coral-Fort Myers region is the worst of these,” wrote investment blog 24/7 Wall Street last week.

Despite all this, Lee County authorities have authorized a massive amount of new development. Local zoning laws have reserved enough land for new housing development to allow the building of 1.1 million homes, or 228 percent more than the current 346,000 homes. According to Priceofsprawl.com, building out that plan would cost suffering Lee County $3.12 billion in road construction, or about $10,000 per household, plus another $943 million to build the necessary schools. The oversupply of housing further drags down the value of existing homes.

“Our elected officials always said ‘yes’ wherever a development came forward – no matter the cost. This is our opportunity to tell our story our way,” said Janet Stanko, of the North Florida Sierra Club, who oversaw the mapping project as part of the Amendment 4 campaign, an ultimately unsuccessful 2010 ballot initiative in Florida that would have made new development approvals subject to a public vote.

“When you have a growth in housing but you don’t have an increase in jobs, that makes an economy very unstable,” she said.

Image: ##http://www.priceofsprawl.com## Priceofsprawl.com##

Lee County is not unusual in the Sunshine State. Across Florida, local officials have approved development well in excess of the ability to support it, both fiscally and environmentally. Water supplies are already strained in many portions of the state. (Priceofsprawl.com characterizes Lee County’s water supply as “empty.”)

Meanwhile, the housing market has suffered in Florida more than most states. And the outlook is far from rosy.

Yet local officials in Florida, where about 19 million people live, have approved housing development that amounts to five times the state’s current population — about 100 million.

In 2010, Stanko and Florida homeowner Lesley Blackner teamed up to challenge this pattern. Through the statewide Amendment 4/Hometown Democracy Now Campaign, they hoped to wrestle decisions to convert rural land to housing from elected officials.

At the outset, the proposal was polling at 67 percent approval, said Stanko. The Florida Chamber of Commerce and the real estate industry fought hard against it, eventually eroding support down to about one-third, the result at the ballot box.

Despite the unusual nature of the Amendment 4 approach and its ultimate failure, the campaign helped Floridians become better informed about sprawl issues. Priceofsprawl.com continues that education process, even though the ballot issue for which is was built is history.

“What were putting out there is a big paradigm shift,” said Stanko. “The paradigm out there right now is that growth is good and more is better. We’re trying to help people understand, ‘No, it’s not paying for itself and you’re paying for it and oh, by the way, your neighborhoods are deteriorating faster because the money that would have been used to fix your street is going to those outlying areas.'”

I would love to see this tool replicated in cities around the country. In fact, can we start with my hometown: Cleveland?

  • Guest

    Scary statistics

  • darren

    check out Florida DOT’s latest take on pedestrian and bicycle safety, which takes the ‘windshield view’ to gory extremes.
    http://seetheblindspots.com/

  • Anonymous

    It seems like there’s this idea in the US that homebuilding is the best or only way to stimulate the economy or create jobs. 

  • Nisenson

    I am a planner in Sarasota and looking at these numbers may give the impression that all permit counters be shut down until population kicks back up to equal number of units. But reality is more nuanced. There is An eye popping glut indeed in green fields, but a dearth in urbAn areas where more people could live without cars (or expensive para transit services). There is a massive mismatch. However localities also oppose higher than two story buildings. There is a lot more education than this article implies. Pairing this map with housing+transportation costs might be a better tool.

  • Emma Humphries

    I am wondering why we do not have data for Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties. As an observer, I would say that sprawl in western Broward and western Palm Beach was tremendous following Hurricane Andrew in 1992 (although I believe it has stalled significantly over
    the past six years). That said, the populations of those two counties are
    probably equally tremendous — perhaps enough to justify the
    development? Considering the size and populations of these southeastern counties, I think we really need data on them to make a compelling case against irresponsible development.

  • Janet Stanko

    This is Janet Stanko with PriceOfSpawl.com.  My compliments to Angie Schmitt for an excellent summarization of the website. 

    To respond to Emma Humphries question:  Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach counties among other jurisidctions will be added as part of phase II January 15th or so.  Please check back.  To be sure you dont miss any new additions, please give us your email for announcements.

    Thanks for an informative website. 

  • Frank Starkey

    I agree with the assertions that sprawl is a costly burden to government/taxpayers,  depletes water and other natural resources, etc.  However, I find the website’s data difficult to understand, and therefore it’s not yet something I would use to promote these ideas to others.  However, I think its general format is good, and condensing statistics to straightforward graphics is helpful.  In the interest of constructive criticism to its authors, I offer the following:
    1.  The definition of “buildout” is vague, almost self-contradictory, and seems to be predicated on a static “ideal” population.  I have never heard anyone propose that population is ever static, nor that there is an “ideal” one.  There is the notion of “carrying capacity” of a place/region/planet, but it’s not mentioned here…  I’m not sure if the authors think build out is a good goal or a bridge too far.
    2.  Undoubtedly there is a relationship between the costs of sprawl and our current real estate meltdown, but those dynamics are rather complex.  As presented here, the loss of real estate value is mixed in without a clear causal connection being made.  It comes off as alarmist, rather than instructive, and so it is a point easily picked apart.
    3.  Statements like “Politicians don’t want you to know” give the site a conspiratorial ring that undermines its presumably educational message.
    4.  Infrastructure costs are presented without any context of how they may be even partially paid for by new growth.  Many FL jurisdictions have impact fees, but they’re way too low (i.e. the FIELD Study).  And that’s just about initial construction.  There is brief mention that residential uses cost more in services than they pay in taxes, but where are those ongoing costs tallied?  This is a very troubling statistic for what we have already built, and it needs to be addressed through urban form (see below), not simply shutting the door on all new housing.
    5.  As mentioned by another commenter, the issue of development form is critical.  The FIELD report referenced in the site indicates that with compact, urban form, the needed impact fees would be significantly less than under the “as-is” scenario.  This discussion may be not be the goal of the authors, but I believe it is unavoidable in any reasoned dialogue about growth.

    Hopefully this tool can be improved to spur productive dialogue.

    Cheers!

  • I’m all about stopping sprawl. My cursory review indicates that this website doesn’t make any distinctions between different types of development or even different locations. It shows road cost impacts per home as the same in the city of Orlando as some rural counties. It seems to assume all new construction is sprawl.