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Stop Sprawl

Getting Major Media Attention with Just the Facts

Mention the long-term problem of suburban sprawl and you’ll get yawns from reporters, politicians, and citizens, since they don't typically focus on anything beyond today's news. Mention that a "new report" indicates sprawling development will cost taxpayers $10 billion, or more than $5000 per household, and you'll get news stories all over your region and politicians scrambling to do something about it.

A Sprawl Costs Us All report can focus the attention of your local media, government officials and citizens on how suburban sprawl development is bankrupting your community financially, environmentally and socially. Sierra Club volunteers have produced these reports for Wisconsin, Maryland, Virginia, and a 10-state region in the Midwest.

Volunteers in these states say that the facts and figures in Sprawl Costs Us All reports are an invaluable tool for fighting sprawl. For instance, activists in Maryland recently used data from the report to make a successful case against construction of a freeway. Here are some steps you can follow to draft a Sprawl Costs Us All report for your community:

1) Goals and Strategy
Are you trying to influence a planning process, a highway funding vote, or a development decision? When is the right time to release your report? Who is your audience? Do you want to attract members to a coalition? Do you plan to conduct a "Tour de Sprawl" (see tool kit for details) to visualize the costliest patterns of sprawl?

2) Draw up a budget and timeline
Your report can be a simple two-page fact sheet or a full-blown booklet. Just to give you an idea, here is a sample low-cost fact sheet budget and the budget for the Maryland Sprawl Costs Us All report, which relied on a paid researcher and graphic designer. This 16-page booklet was 8 1/2 by 11 inches and printed with one color of ink on recycled paper. The Club charged $5 per copy. It took about 5 months from launching research to releasing the report at a press conference.

Task Low Budget Full Budget
Research (volunteer/professional) $0 $2,400
Graphics (2pp/16pp) $50 $500
Printing (500/2000 copies) $50 $2,000
Mailing, 250 mailed @ $0.32/$1 each $80 $250
Income, 250 @ $0/$5 each $0 ($1,250)
Total Cost $180 $3,900

3) Seek funding
Sprawl reports can be funded through tax-deductible contributions (known to the IRS as c(3) and to Sierra Club as "Foundation" money). Many Sierra chapters have foundation accounts just waiting to be used on special projects such as your sprawl report. In addition, allied groups and individuals who may not be able to contribute to Sierra Club's advocacy work can contribute to the tax-deductible costs of a Sprawl Costs Us All report. A private donor in Baltimore funded the entire cost of the Maryland Chapter's report after receiving a one-page summary of the project.

If your Sierra group is in an area selected by the national Club to receive Environmental Public Education Campaign funds (EPEC), you may be able to include funding of a sprawl report in the EPEC work plan crafted by Chapter leaders. The Club also periodically offers mini-grants through the EPEC program which could cover funding of a sprawl report.

4) Assemble an advisory board
Assembling an advisory board of experts who will provide research materials and critique the report can be helpful. These experts will lend credibility to your report and should be prominently listed in its front pages. You can find experts at environmental groups, historic preservation trusts, universities, think-tanks, and even government (as long as they are not responsible for your local sprawl problems).

5) Research your report
Start with an outline of your report, plagiarizing freely from the Club's previous reports. Focus your research efforts by defining what facts and figures will best describe the financial, environmental and social costs of sprawl. The following list can give you some ideas:

  • The amount of money spent on services (roads, sewer and water lines, schools, police, etc.) for every dollar of tax revenue collected from residential, industrial and farm/forest lands (see Fig. 1).
  • The cost of services for urban vs. low density suburban development.
  • The break-even cost of new homes (what must they cost so that tax revenues offset the cost of providing services to that home?).
  • Trends in local tax rates, and trends in local government debt.
  • Amount that developers pay for the cost of new infrastructure in their developments vs. the actual cost.
  • Trends in vehicle miles traveled and number of failing intersections. Trends in highway construction and its costs.
  • The capacity for growth on existing sewer service (compare to projected growth; you'll probably find that your community can accommodate many times its projected growth on existing sewer service).
  • Trends in local population growth. Show differences in suburban vs. core urban areas.
  • Vacancy rate of commercial real estate in suburban vs. core urban areas.
  • Trends in school construction and crowding.
  • Trends in land consumption and loss of farmland and open space.
  • Trends in water consumption and supply, and costs of new supply and treatment facilities.
  • Trends in air pollution.

You won't have to do any original research to answer most of these questions; government agencies have compiled much of it and the media have reported on some of it. Your goal is just to take all the available data and compile it in an easy-to-use reference which will clearly make your case with some eye-popping numbers. Your research sources may include local newspapers; state reports from planning, environmental, transportation and tax departments; reports or budget summaries from local governments; and reports from nonprofit groups. Talk to local planners. Use your advisory board and their contacts to lead you directly to the right materials.

Local counties and towns should have completed a fiscal impact analysis of the amount of revenue generated by taxes from new development compared to the costs of servicing those new residents with roads, water and sewer, fire protection, police, schools and recreation. If they haven't done a fiscal impact analysis, make a news splash with this by giving Ostrich Awards to counties that ignore the costs of growth!

6) Release your report!

Release your report to the press and public officials at a strategic moment if possible. For instance, at the beginning of a local legislative session or electoral campaign. Call upon your elected officials to account for allowing suburban sprawl development to drain the pocketbooks of taxpayers and damage the environment.

Don't forget to mail complementary copies of the report to environmental and civic leaders. And, of course, use your report frequently--at activist training seminars, at public hearings on sprawl-related issues, and at meetings with public officials and the media.

Figure 1: Revenues Compared to Service Costs on a Dollar-to-Dollar Basis for Different Land Uses

Location Residential building cost Commercial building cost Farmland, forest and open space cost
Virginia average 1 : 1.33 1 : 0.29 1 : 0.35
Maryland average 1 : 1.17 1 :0.42 1 : 0.42
Connecticut average 1 : 1.06 1 : 0.47 1 : 0.43
Massachusetts average 1 : 1.12 1 : 0.42 1 : 0.33
New York average 1 : 1.24 1 : 0.24 1 : 0.35
Town of Dunn, WI 1 : 1.06 1 : 0.29 1 : 0.18
Minnesota average 1 : 1.04 1: 0.39 1 : 0.50
Ohio average 1 : 1.41 1 : 0.23 1 : 0.34
Average of the above 1 : 1.18 1 : 0.34 1 : 0.36

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