April 01, 2020

Will Maine succeed in containing sprawl?

Urban and suburban sprawl entered the political scene during the recent election in a new and potentially significant way. A favorite argument against Question 2 in the recent election charged that a vote for the referendum was a vote for sprawl. Small landowners, it was claimed, would be driven to remove their forestland from Tree Growth and would develop the land to avoid the economic impact of the policies proposed in Question 2. The implicit assumption of the argument is that sprawl is a bad thing and that Maine’s citizens are against it. The overwhelming vote against the proposed forestry reform suggests that this assumption may be correct.

But where does this argument lead us now that the election is over and Question 2 is defeated? A recent report by a growth management task force calls for state government to tie state funding to successful management of growth by Maine communities. Residential growth should be concentrated primarily in areas designated for growth and new commercial development should not be allowed where it would cause congestion on roadways. Judging from the results of the recent election, we should applaud the efforts of the task force to put some content into the fight against sprawl. The success of the argument against the forestry referendum suggests that many people ought to support efforts to contain sprawl. Indeed, forces who rarely cooperate should now be willing to come together to deal with these issues in a constructive manner, knowing that many Maine citizens voted with the dangers of sprawl in mind.

But how exactly should we define the problem of sprawl? Is it just that it causes substantial economic costs to taxpayers? Should we look no further than to ask that those who build and develop in outlying areas be made to pay the full economic costs of their choices? Success in battling sprawl will require some long-term re-thinking of cultural attitudes and assumptions, because not all the decisions we may need to make will be popular or easy. We should consider, therefore, what some of the non-economic reasons for containing sprawl are, and we should identify some of the difficult choices we will have to make when we take the problems of sprawl seriously.

There is no question that the problem of urban and suburban sprawl is a serious one and growing larger. It contributes to the loss of family farms and forestland, while increasing traffic congestion, air pollution, and the loss of economically coherent towns and cities. Tourism is harmed, forestry and agriculture suffer, and Maine’s way of life takes a turn for the worse. These harms are not just economic, although they often have an economic dimension.

It is the way of life of people that sprawl disrupts. And this human disruption takes place in the context of massive environmental disruption as well. Maine citizens and the tourists who visit the state share their place with wild animals and a multitude of ecosystems.

Sprawl is a problem not just because some people pay higher taxes to support those who choose to build their homes in outlying areas. It is a problem because this ever-increasing human dispersal hacks away at natural habitats, undermines biological diversity, and harms wildlife. Finally, it so blights the landscape that we who live in Maine and travel its roads are constantly shocked by new ugliness.

Let us make no mistake, however. Our collective decision to take sprawl seriously and reflect on what it is doing both to the land and to ourselves has many challenges ahead. Small landowners who opposed the forestry referendum on the grounds that it might contribute to sprawl will now have to face the fact that preventing sprawl may also require new zoning restrictions on the use of private lands. If we are concerned to protect agricultural and forest ways of life, as well as the landscapes they support, we will need to accept limitations on the conversion of these lands to commercial and residential development. This much is implied in the recent task force report.

In addition, business interests will need to re-think support for the East-West Highway, while environmentalists will want to reflect on their support for a Maine North Woods National Park. Both projects will increase the tendency towards sprawl. The highway is intended to increase access to otherwise remote areas. And, while the park project is intended to protect and conserve lands within its projected borders, use of the park by the millions of people within a day’s drive will require expanded road access and stimulate commercial and vacation development outside the park boundaries.

These implications are controversial, of course. Efforts to contain sprawl will collide with private interests in many ways. It will probably be difficult to obtain a statewide consensus on the value of wild animals, natural habitats, and landscape beauty, despite our too easy tendency to identify these very things with the essence of living in Maine. Nonetheless, it is time to begin the serious debates about how to put the expressed will of many Maine people into action on this problem.

Roger King teaches environmental ethics and philosophy in the Philosophy Department at the University of Maine.

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