Urban Planning
November 19, 2004 5:48 AM   Subscribe

The small town where I live is on the verge of annexing some farmland and zoning it to allow for construction of a strip mall. Even though common sense says that the sprawl will move business away from our succesful downtown (like, Starbucks will see our successful coffee shop and open a branch in the strip mall) and that adding a strip mall will increase traffic and require more construction down the line, are there any scholarly studies that show this pattern? And does anyone know of alternatives that would preserve the downtown, affect the surrounding farms less drastically, and still allow the land owner to sell for a good price?
posted by eustacescrubb to Society & Culture (21 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
The best way to counter the ill-effects of sprawl is to revitalize downtown. Mass transit, welcoming public spaces, a good mix of commercial/cultural enterprises, etc. That being said, strip malls need not be seen as wholly evil. Planned well, they can provide jobs, some degree of convenience, and even some healthy competition.

Northampton, Massachusetts is a good example. Downtown was doing pretty poorly not that many years ago, and malls along the nearby interstate were flourishing. An infusion of resources into downtown (boutique stores, good restaurants, better parking) turned some of those malls into ghost towns and then had many people complaining that downtown had become too congested.

The bibliography here (http://www.vtpi.org/downtown.pdf) has a lot of good cites that I think will help you along. The text itself makes a lot of good points as well.

For a look at some Vermont perspectives, see http://www.plannersweb.com/sprawl/vttimes.html

Also read some James Howard Kunstler.
posted by Framer at 6:29 AM on November 19, 2004

Sprawl can be actively controlled by the establishment of a Greenbelt. Usually, this is done with a new or repurposed millage that the city uses to buy up development rights from landowners, preventing sprawly development, and theoretically driving development back downtown. They are controversial, expensive, and require the will of the government as well as the support of the electorate, but they can definitely restrict sprawl.

Both Ann Arbor and Boulder also have tax-funded greenbelts.
posted by ulotrichous at 7:03 AM on November 19, 2004

I live in one of the biggest mall towns in MA. The taxes generated ffrom the malls were put towards redoing the downtown area. Now we have a thriving downtown and the malls are all in another corner of town which is easy to avoid unless you need to buy something.
posted by bondcliff at 7:10 AM on November 19, 2004

The Vermont Forum on Sprawl has a good web site that is a leaping-off place for some of these discussions with a lot of good research to read up on. I am not a city planner in any way but things that seem to work out this way are:

- zoning that sets upper limits on the size of big box stores forcing them to scale down and possibly locate closer to the urban core. We have a Wal-Mart in Rutland Vermont [another big mall-town] where I work and even though I don't care for Wal-Mart much, there is no denying that its location in the middle of the city really helps other businesses in the area and keeps people moving about in the downtown area.
- for farmers, selling development rights to the land to a land trust offers a way to make some money off the land, continute to farm the land, and also preserve the land as farmland for future generations. The downside is that the ultimate price of the land when you go to sell it entirely is much lower, the good news is that working farmers can make some money and still live on their land. Sometimes towns view this sort of sale as good news for preserving open space, and sometimes they do not because it locks more of the land up in non revenue generating uses
- the Center for Land Use Interpretation does some really interesting art pieces that have to do with understanding how land is used and apportioned. Pretty esoteric in relation to this topic, but worth looking at in any case.

In short, the Vermont model shows that proactive zoning can at least give you a leg to stand on when dealing with development and can help you involve the community and get solutions that work for business and residents alike.
posted by jessamyn at 7:29 AM on November 19, 2004

And does anyone know of alternatives that would preserve the downtown, affect the surrounding farms less drastically, and still allow the land owner to sell for a good price?

There are a lot of tools out there for this sort of thing (going through some of the links above and looking for smart growth and sprawl resources will get you to them), but one thing to do is to find out what the procedure is for the annexation (I assume it has to be passed by City Council), and then organizing people concerned about it and taking them to City Council. Make sure they know how you feel, and that there are many other people who feel the same way. Force them to really present what the costs and benefits of the strip mall are: who is paying for what, how will the area be zoned, does it fit with your existing city and/or regional plan. If you spill the name of the town, I imagine some of us around can help you locate some of this information, or can help you find out how to call and yap to.
posted by claxton6 at 7:34 AM on November 19, 2004

Conservation easements are a good option if the owner of the farmland wants to protect certain aspects of it while still allowing development on most of the land. Basically, the landowner can encumber the property with a deed restriction that carries over to all subsequent owners.

An example would be: setting aside the floodplain of a stream for permanent conservation. This can provide a tax benefit to the landowner, as it will reduce the value of the land. Conservation easements have not been fully challenged in the courts, and it's possible that in the future their strength will be weakened, but for now they are a great way to legally protect land against scorched-earth development.

On preview, what jessamyn said, too.
posted by naomi at 7:34 AM on November 19, 2004

And also, don't be hysterical. Planner types (like my future self) are often wary of neighborhood groups, who tend toward reflexive NIMBYism. But this is where you live: be calm, make them understand that it's important, and make them show you what they're doing.
posted by claxton6 at 7:35 AM on November 19, 2004

ulotrichous, at least when it comes to Ann Arbor's Greenbelt policies, the result is that the neighboring towns shoulder the sprawl, due to the concurrent attitude against increasing density in the downtown areas. I can't speak of the Boulder project, but the Ann Arbor one isn't doing much other than making property values skyrocket, cause sprawl to spill out to the nearby towns, who seem to welcome the growth, and make the existing parking and traffic infrastructure in town even more congested.

I'm not a city planner, but I would think that a combination of the Greenbelt initiatives and aggressive rezoning and density increases in the areas that can handle them is the way to combat sprawl. Growth is like a water leak. You can try to contain it, or let it spill out into areas that are more willing to take in the water.
posted by shawnj at 7:48 AM on November 19, 2004

but the Ann Arbor one isn't doing much other than making property values skyrocket, cause sprawl to spill out to the nearby towns, who seem to welcome the growth, and make the existing parking and traffic infrastructure in town even more congested.

I don't think the Ann Arbor one is doing much of anything, yet. The Commission hasn't even made its first recommendations yet. Regardless, the Ann Arbor greenbelt barely warrants that name, being that it's nowhere near comprehensive enough to surround the city. It's really a PDR program with a name that's easy to market to A2's upscale populace.

I'm not a city planner, but I would think that a combination of the Greenbelt initiatives and aggressive rezoning and density increases in the areas that can handle them is the way to combat sprawl.

I think this is the key. Slapping a program into place isn't likely to do anything without a comprehensive and reasonably shared vision of what a town and region want to be, including ways to handle "growth," whether that is by continuing development inside of town or at its fringes.
posted by claxton6 at 7:54 AM on November 19, 2004

My mistake. That should be, then, what my projection of what the Greenbelt will bring.
posted by shawnj at 8:03 AM on November 19, 2004

Response by poster: claxton6, about 1/4 of the town has already signed a petition against the annexation. The land owner is also the prospective developer and, so far as I can tell, isn't being forthright about everything (i.e, has insisted that he isn't proposing a strip mall, but the project calls for several storefronts, apartments, a chain restaurant and a hotel), and the Village Council seems to favor the project on the grounds that it'll being in tax revenue. They also keep arguing that annexation != strip mall, but we know from a recent similar decision that they're not likely to use clever zoning to keep the annexed land from being turned into a strip mall.
All parties involved are being vague, which makes me suspicious, and part fo why I want some academic material is to use it to encourage them to detail specific plans.

And I think most people would probably not be opposed to development along some other lines, or something that promises affordable housing and/or provide some guarantee against competition with downtown businesses in some kind of open space/clustered development. I think this because the local college recently agreed with another landowner to develop a "west campus", and the town opinion of that is fairly supportive.

And, yes, there is a larger issue lurking underneath all of this, which is that there's no well-articulated consensus in the town on how we want to handle growth. Some people are likely reacting emotionally, but IMHO, it's the responsiblity of the developer/the council to initiate meaningful conversation with us about what we, the town, want. What spaces are sacred to us? What kinds of businesses do we want to attract? I"m betting that there's a strong majority opinion, but no one's bothered to find it out.
posted by eustacescrubb at 8:15 AM on November 19, 2004

eustace, take a look at the following:
  • Greater Ohio, a statewide advocacy group for more intellegent development. The website includes links to potentially compelling issues briefs that might be helpful.
  • The Countryside Program, even though they are based in Northeast Ohio, they may be able to provide some help in your case. Also, they have produced a resource manual that includes a set of model regulations. Their focus is on the strengthening of town and city centers (like yours) while preserving the rural character of the country.
  • Northeast Ohio Regional Retail Analysis (semi-self-link): This document that focuses on the seven counties of Greater Cleveland has been used by community advocates around the state to show the economic, enviornmental, and social impacts of retail development.
All of this is fairly Ohio-specific, and deals with the peculiarities of development in a "home rule" state.
posted by Avogadro at 8:52 AM on November 19, 2004

Crud, for the Countryside Program Resource Manual, click on the "model regulations" link on the front page.
posted by Avogadro at 8:54 AM on November 19, 2004

IANAP, but I think this is a great opportunity for your community and its government to take a hard look at what it wants to look like in the future. Opposing development in general is a losing battle, I think. But in the end, what really matters to you and everyone in town is the quality of what is built, not so much the fact that it's on former farmland newly annexed.

Finding a way to work productively with the developer and city planners is the key to ending up with a development you and the town will love, and the process can provide a model for future repeats of this scenario, which is good because it is going to keep coming up. If you appear to just be opposed to development in general, you may win this fight, but you're going to lose ground in the end.
posted by daveadams at 9:19 AM on November 19, 2004

One more thing to consider: many owners of huge tracts of land (especially farmers) see their property as their retirement fund, and may be loathe to agree to conservation easements (even with the tax benefits). jessamyn's reference to the purchase of development rights is damn timely. The Ohio Dept. of Agriculture does have a farmland preservation program in place.
posted by Avogadro at 9:20 AM on November 19, 2004

Also read some James Howard Kunstler.

And take him with a grain of salt. He's a crank who may have some good ideas, but his method of communication is so brash and, frankly, downright rude, that he's not going to win over anyone skeptical.
posted by daveadams at 9:21 AM on November 19, 2004

Tom Hylton, founder of Save Our Land, Save Our Towns Foundation spoke here in Columbus, Ohio about sprawl and tradtional towns. He made a great presentation and seems to have an informative website. If you are going to fight this development, Mr. Hylton suggested that having stories about people that illustrated the values of town preservation will be a more effective way to engage people on the issue than statistics and studies. Best of luck.
posted by putzface_dickman at 9:25 AM on November 19, 2004

Also, I think a lot of people could be inspired to preserve the character of Yellow Springs, if that's really where you are. I've spent my share of money there because of its town culture / configuration.
I know a few dozen people who would mobilize enough to bitch if they thought Yellow Springs was under threat.
posted by putzface_dickman at 9:30 AM on November 19, 2004

* reminds self to click links before posting *
posted by putzface_dickman at 9:35 AM on November 19, 2004

All of the above are good suggestions. I work in Planning Coordination in Delaware. We've had good luck working with a cat named Ed McMahon, who is now with the Urban Land Institute (a good resource). We had him put together a publication -- Better Models for Development in Delaware -- which speaks to ways communities can take control of development and demand "better."
Instead of debating whether growth will occur, we should be discussing the patterns of development: where we put it, how we arrange it, and what it looks like.
Ed is a great speaker and does a dynamic slideshow. We've had luck using him as an inspirational speaker to grab the attention of local leaders; we follow up with intensive staff work to help those leaders craft Comprehensive Plans for their towns.
posted by mmahaffie at 7:21 PM on November 19, 2004

This might be useful for you: Municipal annexation in Georgia and the US.
posted by claxton6 at 1:25 PM on November 20, 2004

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