Downwardly mobile

Amish on bike passes SUV

Courtesy David Shankbone

By Marilyn Skolnick

Although Lancaster County is best known for its gently rolling hills and Amish farms, its idyllic countryside is now giving way to the same sort of suburban sprawl plaguing the rest of the nation.

Despite an intensive agricultural protection program, Lancaster has lost nearly 4,800 acres to development each year since 1980. This sprawl, which has overtaken 68 square miles in a ten-year period, has prompted the National Trust for Historic Preservation to identify Lancaster as one of its most endangered historic sites.

Where sprawl develops, big box stores are sure to follow, so it’s more vexing than surprising that Walmart is now proposing to build five new stores in the area.

Unfortunately this type of commercial development has a strong and negative correlation to sprawl. In his book, Visions for a New America, Anton Nelessen calls sprawl “the ultimate pattern of secular consumerism.” That’s because sprawl consumes large tracts of open land, requires the frequent use of automobiles, and isolates neighbors who might otherwise be willing to share resources. Sprawl also encourages land speculation, requires high infrastructure investments, and is a major source of air and water pollution.

Like many states, Pennsylvania has a municipality code that fosters sprawl by requiring the separation of land uses via zoning laws. This type of zoning effectively isolates inhabitants of housing developments from workplaces, shopping centers, schools, and entertainment districts. Combine these isolated islands of development types with low-density growth (where small families inhabit large houses on even larger parcels of land), and residents have little choice but to drive to work, to the store, and to community events. Not only has this type of zoning made the automobile necessary, but it has effectively destroyed the walking suburbs, public transit, and thousands of small, locally-owned businesses.

Ironically, zoning that separates different types of land use is now creating the same kind of hazards for residents that they were originally designed to eliminate. Beginning in the late 1920’s, single-use zones were established to keep industrial waste from polluting residential areas. But what worked for health, safety, and welfare almost a century ago is now causing the very problems that the laws were designed to prevent. Today, smog from suburban traffic is not only a major contributor to global warming, but to the skyrocketing rates of asthma in our communities. 

Along with the big box stores, the winners of this type of development include the auto, oil, rubber, concrete, and road construction industries. The losers are the citizens who live there, because as Nelessen points out, sprawl is highly expensive to maintain. The cost of financing a home, owning a car, and paying for gas has gotten so steep that suburban living now often requires two full-time incomes. Even before the recent steep climb at the pump, the average two-year-old car cost $5,000 per year to own and maintain, making it that much harder for those on the bottom of the social ladder to afford a house, health care, and good schools. In addition, considerable amounts of time are required to navigate the current pattern of sprawl. For the average suburban resident, dependence on their automobiles has resulted in increased traffic congestion and longer commutes, which means that there is less time available to spend with children, family, and neighbors.

The public costs to maintain suburban mobility are also high, approximately $4,000 to $9,400 per car per year, depending on how many miles are driven. That’s because each new car introduced into a community increases municipal costs for road improvements, drainage, and additional police protection. The heavy dependence on automobiles in these communities is also largely responsible for much of our nation’s inefficient energy use, reliance on foreign oil, and air pollution.

Although it can be hard to tabulate the true cost of sprawl, in the case of Lancaster County, which produces hundreds of millions of dollars in farm products and hosts thousands of tourists every year, the sticker price might come as something as a shock. As more farms make way for McMansions and strip malls replace idyllic landscapes, residents who once enjoyed the area's rural beauty may wake to find that what had been known as the "Garden Spot of America” has taken on the bland cast of the rest of America’s ever encroaching suburbs.

Marilyn Skolnick serves as co-chair of the Chapter's transportation and land use committe.

Published August 2008