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Causes of Sprawl

There is a wide variety of potential causes of sprawl, both direct and indirect. It can be challenging to identify all of the factors that drive the phenomenon. Such factors generally revolve around choices made by home buyers, businesses and entrepreneurial enterprises, and local, regional, and state governments.

Although all of these decision makers believe they are presumably making smart choices for themselves in the short term, collectively the choices can lead to community disadvantage in the long term via the consequence of sprawl.

Choices made by Home Buyers

Households looking to purchase new homes often seek to find packages or bundles of features that accompany their prospective new home. These packages represent benefits or amenities that do not merely relate to the interior or exterior of their new home. Such benefits and amenities include:

  • Proximity to public parks, playgrounds, walking/biking trails, or other natural environments
  • Proximity to a better or more reputable school district, if children are in the household
  • Friendlier neighborhoods and communities, with less crime
  • Lower property taxes
  • More property acreage, and less cost per acre
  • Newer homes with more modern appliances, conveniences and interior styles
  • Newer homes that have implemented more modern construction techniques, therefore requiring less maintenance and upkeep
  • Larger houses, with more bedrooms & bathrooms per house
  • More distance between neighbors
  • Distance from crowded urban centers
  • Distance from pollution
  • A more natural environment
  • Easy access to highways, easy commuter routes
  • Proximity to bus routes for school-age children
  • Waterfront property
  • Private water supply

While  all of these features and other features have value for some prospective home buyers, demand by an increasing number of people often leads home builders and buyers to more rural regions  in order to provide the desired mix of residential characteristics, thus contributing to sprawl.

Choices of Businesses and Developers

Whether businesses are large or small, all business owners will naturally seek to minimize costs, maximize profits, and find the best and most convenient ways of selling their products or services. With this in mind, businesses often make calculated short-term decisions influenced by the following factors or trends:

  • Manufacturing has decreased, and the economy has moved to a more service-oriented and technology-related culture. This enables storefronts and businesses to be in less centralized locations, and provide their goods and services in more suburban and rural settings.
  • It is often more expensive—and sometimes cost-prohibitive—for businesses to redevelop unused or dilapidated urban business locations. In other words, it is often too expensive to purchase land that was formerly used for manufacturing or production (which, being in urban areas, may  have higher property taxes).  It can also be difficult to demolish and rebuild or renovate pre-existing  structures and properties.   High costs can be related to  challenging demolition logistics if the property is in an urban and high-traffic area or if significant environmental cleanup is necessary.
  • It is generally less expensive and less complex to build new construction on undeveloped land—forests or former farms that have no former construction.
  • Where the agricultural industry struggles in   areas subject to the pressures of sprawl,   farmers   tend to sell  their land and consolidate their operations on less and less acreage.
  • Smaller towns and villages are eager to invite businesses into their regions in order to spark economic growth. These municipalities often provide tax incentives to businesses that are willing to enter, and  otherwise accommodate such infusions of commercial expansion.
  • Federal and state financial support for the maintenance and care of urban infrastructure  such as water and sewer systems has declined. This requires businesses that are redeveloping urban spaces to invest more capital in fixing such problems themselves.
  • Conversely, private septic systems and wells have decreased in price and increased in quality/efficiency, therefore making it less expensive for businesses to establish and operate water and septic systems in more rural and decentralized regions, and equally less expensive for developers to build residential communities outside of city limits.
  • Greater demand among home buyers for larger homes and more distance between homes continues to inspire developers to build more houses, apartment complexes, condominiums and other residential communities in suburban, rural and previously undeveloped regions.

Choices made by Local, Regional, and State Governments

Zoning and tax policies at the town, village, county or state level can play a large part in either suppressing or accelerating sprawl. These are the factors:

  • Smaller towns and villages are often eager to grant tax incentives to incoming businesses, as an attempt to bolster their own regional economy. The tax breaks are often attached to large parcels of undeveloped acreage.
  • Metropolitan areas comprised of multiple local governing bodies tend to facilitate sprawl because the local regions are competing against each other for the influx of commerce, new homeowners and tax base. Rural areas are in part competing for development  through lower property taxes.
  • Areas that rely more heavily on property taxes for their revenue are often the ones to sprawl the most. Conversely, areas where revenue is raised through fees and charges reduce the incentives for bigger businesses to set up camp in rural locations, thus reducing the tendency toward sprawl.
  • Municipalities that establish zoning regulations promoting large-lot subdivision and single-use development also stimulate sprawl.   Much traditional zoning discourages businesses from locating in more densely developed areas.
  • Federal or state policies historically favored construction of new infrastructure in suburban areas even as infrastructure in urban areas declined.  Such policy have for example involved schools, fire and/or police services, and water & sewer  infrastructure