Land Use Policy

Largely a post Word-War II phenomenon, the word sprawl describes what its name evokes: formless, spreading, inefficent consumption of land. A “sprawling” landscape generally has no center and few public spaces where people congregate.

Many Americans feel that sprawling development has accrued too many costs: The environment has suffered as Americans make more and more vehicle trips, new houses gobble up farmland and scenic countryside and new sewer lines and septic tanks damage the water supply in many areas. Civic participation also suffers as we spend more time stuck in traffic, know fewer of our neighbors, and inhabit a privatized landscape with few public squares or “third places”. In addition, as varying ethnic groups and social classes live in isolation from each other, there is less of a sense of unity and shared fate.

The sprawl model also negatively affects small locally owned stores. When permissive zoning laws allow large megastores to locate on the outskirts of town (with generous tax breaks often thrown into the deal), money is siphoned away from the local businesses, further undermining a sense of place and community. (See New Rules Project’s Retail Sector for more about this problem. Also see Stacy Mitchell’s book The Hometown Advantage: How to Defend Your Main Street Against Chain Stores and Why it Matters .)

Thissection offers several policy measures that encourage a more efficient use of land that fosters civic participation and social interaction.

Distance-Based Impact Fees – Lancaster, CA

In 1993, the city of Lancaster developed an innovative model for assessing impact fees on new development. Known as the Urban Structure Program, the model included a surcharge levied on new development beyond the central core (5 mile radius). The further out from the central core, the higher the surcharge. A typical new house located within the core, for example, incurred an impact fee of $5,500. The same house located one mile beyond the core incurred a fee of $10,800. The program was abandoned in 1997.… Read More

Land Gains Tax – Vermont

The state of Vermont uses a Land Gains Tax to protect rural land from short-term speculation. First effective in 1973, the tax imposes very high taxes on sales of land held a short time and sold for a large profit.

The land gains tax is imposed on the gain from the sale or exchange of Vermont land that was held less than six years, and the land is not part of the first ten acres beneath or contiguous to the seller's principal residence.

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Land Value Taxation

Can a land tax reduce sprawl and strengthen urban economies? The evidence is persuasive though not conclusive. Political economist Henry George first proposed a land value tax over 100 years ago, as a way to eliminate land specualtion and make more land available for production.

Today,some observers hail it as a way to curb sprawl. Current property taxes are based in the value of property, reflecting both the land and structure value, in a proportion determined by local property assessors. Decisions to reinvest or remodel currently result in higher assessment valuations and thus higher taxes.

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Landscape Ordinance – Chicago

In July 1999 significant amendments were added to Chicago's landscape ordinance, making it stricter. For instance any new parking lot of 3,000 square feet or more was required to install landscape islands and trees within the lot. New parking lots of 1,200 square feet or more that are visible from a public right-of-way were required to surround themselves with 2-to-4 foot hedges. In addition, a shade tree must be planted for every 25 feet of new building frontage in most commercial and residential neighborhoods. In addition, the city has embarked on a tree-planting campaign, with the intention of planting 500,000 more trees over the next five years.… Read More

Location-Efficient Mortgage

Some federal policies encourage sprawling development (for instance, the federal income tax home-mortgage interest deduction encourages sprawl because it provides the largest benefit to those who buy the most expensive houses, which often are on larger lots). The federal-government-backed Location Efficient Mortgage initiative is a step in the other direction. The goal of Location Efficient Mortgages is to encourage development and home purchases in dense urban areas with amenities and public transportation close by.… Read More

Transit Policy – Hasselt, Belgium

Hasselt, the capital of the Belgian province of Limburg, has a population of 68,000, and is the regional center for a population of 800,000 people. 200,000 people from the region commute in and out of the city every day. Faced with rising debt and congestion, the city council decided in 1996 that they would not build a third road ringing the city. Instead, the city converted the inner ring to a bicycle and pedestrian path, increased the frequency of buses, and announced that buses would be free of charge.… Read More
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Lisa Gonzalez

Lisa Gonzalez researches and reports on telecommunications and municipal networks' impact on life at the local level. Lisa also writes for and produces ILSR's Broadband Bits podcast.

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