Time to Face Sprawl Politics and the Sprawl Lobby

In the war on sprawl, the smart growth movement cannot directly compete with the powerful and well-funded sprawl lobby. But it is folly to ignore the sprawl lobby and its commitment to sustain the sprawl status quo.

Read Time: 4 minutes

October 27, 2003, 12:00 AM PST

By Joel S. Hirschhorn

Photo: Joel S. HirschhornThe New York Times used the right word "war" when it headlined a story on October 20, 2003 "War on Sprawl in New Jersey Hits a Wall." Courageous Governor James E. McGreevey had lost the war he declared in his January 2003 state-of-the-state address. No other governor had ever used the strong language that he had -- as in "It is time to draw the line and say 'no more' to mindless sprawl. There is no single greater threat to our way of life in New Jersey than the unrestrained, uncontrolled development that has jeopardized our water supplies, made our schools more crowded, our roads congested, and our open space disappear."

From the very start, New Jersey home builders took the lead in opposing the governor's anti-sprawl program. Their fierce opposition was quite visible. Less visible was the tactic used all over the nation by the sprawl industry to maintain sprawl and suppress smart growth. The sprawl lobby's ammunition in the war is money. Money beats words. Vast sums are spent supporting campaigns of local and state officials to ensure that current planning and zoning rules continue to favor sprawl land development over smart growth. No surprise then that the Times story offered this quote from a New Jersey state official: "I don’t think anyone was under any illusion that the Legislature was not and is not under the thrall of the builders' lobby to a large extent." I had to look up thrall in a dictionary, which made it clear that the official was referring to the enslavement, servitude or submission of legislators to the sprawl industry.

The New Jersey situation is just the latest and most visible example of sprawl politics. In writing a book, I have been collecting evidence of the powerful sprawl lobby. While headquarters of several groups in Washington, D.C. put out reports and statements supporting smart growth, local groups representing home builders, real estate agents, and developers use their money and their political clout to keep the sprawl machine running smoothly. Others around the country have come to the same conclusion about the sprawl lobby. Here are several examples:

Listen to Alex Steffen, author of "Fashioning smart growth from mindless sprawl" in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in 1999: "Sprawl, unlike crime, pays. Powerful interests -- big developers, land speculators, construction corporations --get rich off sprawl. The sprawl lobby is strong and ruthless. We need to demand that our leaders find the courage to stare down the sprawl lobby and get to work on a statewide 'Smart Growth' initiative.”

Listen to Dottie Coplon in North Carolina writing a comment in 2003 on an article in The Charlotte Observer titled "Why sprawl lobby has clout:” “We thought City Council and the county commissioners actually has some say in rezonings. Our naiveté didn’t allow us to recognize the source of influence on public officials."

In early 2003, a case of Lake County, Florida commissioners supporting sprawl was revealed. The Orlando Sentinel talked about three commissioners who "never met a subdivision they didn’t like. They talk 'smart growth.' …Then they vote with developers -- the same ones that pour thousands into their campaigns." They had voted to build a sewage treatment plant that would cause an explosion of sprawl by attracting 10,000 new homes in an area where every elementary school was already overcrowded.

Consider an outstanding political analysis by Merrill Goozner, then chief economics correspondent for the Chicago Tribune's Washington bureau, published in Salon.com in July 1999. Here is Goozner’s wise observation: "Unfortunately, the Clinton administration's anti-sprawl program….doesn’t pose a serious challenge to the sprawl lobby. …Like most of the [state] smart growth initiatives around the country, the Clinton plan is doomed to fail because it doesn’t reckon with the powerful development interests that have a stake in sprawl -- most notably the home builders and road construction lobbies, which dominate every state capital and are already mobilizing to oppose smart growth plans."

The smart growth movement can never compete with the sprawl lobby, at least in terms of money and its influence on local and state officials. But it is folly to ignore the sprawl lobby and its commitment to sustain the sprawl status quo. If you cannot fight money with words, then you need votes. It is necessary to get millions of Americans to vote their commitment to smart growth to protect their own quality of life. Enough votes can stop the sprawl lobby. There is still a chance that the war on sprawl will be more successful than the war on poverty and the war on drugs.

Joel S. Hirschhorn was formerly with the National Governors Association and now is a free-lance consultant, writer and editor, and author of the forthcoming book "Sprawl Kills -- Better Living in Healthy Places."


View More
Chicago Commute

The Right to Mobility

As we consider how to decarbonize transportation, preserving mobility, especially for lower- and middle-income people, must be a priority.

January 26, 2023 - Angie Schmitt

Sharrow bike markings on black asphalt two-lane road with snowy trees

Early Sharrow Booster: ‘I Was Wrong’

The lane marking was meant to raise awareness and instill shared respect among drivers and cyclists. But their inefficiency has led supporters to denounce sharrows, pushing instead for more robust bike infrastructure that truly protects riders.

January 26, 2023 - Streetsblog USA

View of stone-paved street with pedestrians and "Farmers Market" neon sign on left and old buildings on right in Seattle, Washington

Push and Pull: The Link Between Walkability and Affordability

The increased demand for walkable urban spaces could make them more and more exclusionary if cities don’t pursue policies to limit displacement and boost affordability.

January 27, 2023 - Smart Cities Dive

View of Tacoma, Washington with Mount Rainier in background

Tacoma Developing New Housing Policy

The city’s Home in Tacoma plan is designed to address the region’s growth and rising housing prices, but faces local backlash over density and affordability concerns.

1 hour ago - The Urbanist

Green alley under construction

A New Paradigm for Stormwater Management

Rather than shuttling stormwater away from the city and into the ocean as quickly as possible, Los Angeles is now—slowly—moving toward a ‘city-as-sponge’ approach that would capture and reclaim more water to recharge crucial reservoirs.

2 hours ago - Curbed

Aerial view of residential neighborhood in La Habra, California at sunset

Orange County Project Could Go Forward Under ‘Builder’s Remedy’

The nation’s largest home builder could receive approval for a 530-unit development under an obscure state law as the city of La Habra’s zoning laws hang in limbo after the state rejected its proposed housing plan.

3 hours ago - Orange County Register

Write for Planetizen

Urban Design for Planners 1: Software Tools

This six-course series explores essential urban design concepts using open source software and equips planners with the tools they need to participate fully in the urban design process.

Planning for Universal Design

Learn the tools for implementing Universal Design in planning regulations.