TCS Daily

It's a Sprawl World After All?

By C. C. Kraemer - October 24, 2003 12:00 AM

Is John Hieftje a saint or a sinner? Depends on whom you ask. According to the value judgment of Thomas Jefferson he's a sinner. The third president said that "To compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors, is sinful and tyrannical."


Despite the timelessness of Jefferson's wisdom and its universal relevance, to the eco-activists and anti-sprawl elitists, Hieftje, the mayor of Ann Arbor, Mich., is most certainly a saint. It is his role as a leader in a movement to establish a greenbelt -- an open, undeveloped space -- around his city for which he has been canonized.

It will be no surprise when many in Ann Arbor vote in favor of the greenbelt plan when it's offered on the ballot this Nov. 4. It is a university town, its culture dominated by academics who, no matter how overwhelming the facts are to the contrary, tend to support projects that appeal to the political left. When Hieftje defended the scheme in the Detroit Free Press, saying "There are a lot of open spaces around us and if they're all gobbled up, we've lost something big," his appraisal was no doubt widely met with knowing agreement across the city and the Ann Arbor township on the east and north.

To fund the project, landowners will be separated from $35 million of their money through a hike in property taxes. The voters who supported it will be voluntarily surrendering their money for a project they believe in. But what about those who didn't vote for it?


And what of those taxpayers elsewhere in Michigan and across the country who will be responsible for as much as $50 million in matching funds that the greenbelt supporters are expecting? How many will be forced, as well, to pay for something they don't approve of; the victims, Jefferson might say, of someone else's sin.

That sort of entangling of philosophy has never stopped lawmakers from raising taxes, though. Elected officials are guided by an almost universal arrogance that their ideas are so important that they can force others to fund them. In this case, the critical need that must be attended to is the perception that undeveloped land in Ann Arbor and elsewhere is losing a battle to the bulldozer and the builder.

It's not. There is a lot of open space around Ann Arbor. By the U.S. Department of Agriculture's estimate, half of Michigan's 36 million acres is forest. (In case anyone thinks the state is losing forestland, it has about 2 million more acres of forest than it did 20 years ago.) With less than 10 percent of the state urbanized, Michigan is, by a wide margin, rural.

Alarmists want the public to believe that development is quickly consuming open spaces. But they protest too much. As anyone who's taken a cross-country flight and made an honest observation of what's below in fly-over country can confirm, the U.S. is blessed with an immense amount of open space. In fact, only a small slice of the country -- less than 5 percent -- is developed. A smaller portion -- less than one-tenth of 1 percent, according to the National Association of Home Builders -- is used for housing.

If there's a "wave of development" that "will sweep over us," a fear Hieftje expressed in the Free Press, it's going to take a long time.

Consider that more U.S. land has been designated as federal wilderness area (106 million acres) than has been developed (98 million acres consumed for commercial, residential, industrial and transportation uses). Add other federally protected areas, the open space placed off-limits by state and local governments, and privately owned undeveloped land, then remember that it's taken more than 400 years for the country to reach 98 million acres of development, and it becomes clear that the smart-growth faction is embellishing its claims that open space is being lost at an unsettling rate. It might not like the way cities develop, but it has no more data to back up its fear mongering than it does the moral authority to dictate other people's housing preferences.

Hieftje just might get his wish to have taxpayers fund the greenbelt. But he and his supporters will find that their efforts will have an amusing -- though not to them -- effect. The Ann Arbor planners are likely to witness a repeat of what happened a few years back in Portland, Ore., where ambitious officials established a similar no-build ring around the city's perimeter. Undaunted families looking for bigger, newer houses with generous yards and home builders willing to provide them simply jumped the no-build zone and developed land outside Portland's jurisdiction.

When Jefferson said it was sinful to compel a man to pay for something he didn't support, he was speaking in the context of religious freedom. But his conviction applies in the Ann Arbor case and all others like it. The anti-sprawl movement is not a recognized religion, but its zealous disciples, who worship at a green altar, have made it into one.

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