Lock your barns and get your guns — North Dakota’s precious farmlands are being threatened by urban sprawl. Or so some urban planners would have Dakota residents believe.
In reality, North Dakota is losing population, having declined from 642,000 in the 2000 census to an estimated 639,000 in 2007. But a handful of North Dakota counties have managed to eke out some growth, notably Cass County (home of Fargo) and Burleigh County (home of Bismarck, the state capital). Both are growing at a rate of about 1.5 percent per year, which puts them among the 450 fastest growing counties (out of more than 3,000) in the country. Still, there are plenty of larger counties whose populations are growing much faster.
Despite all its wild growth, Burleigh County still has only 77,000 people (58,000 of whom live in Bismarck). So when the Burleigh County Commission decided to update its 20-year-old comprehensive plan, instead of asking its tiny planning staff to do it, it contracted it out.
The county selected SRF Consulting to draft the update. Apparently, SRF’s Minneapolis headquarters makes it see everything through the lens of urban sprawl, as the group’s draft plan, which was published a few days ago, is focused almost entirely on stopping such sprawl.
The plan’s number one “vision statement” is “orderly growth and avoidance of sprawl.” The plan’s leading goals and objectives are to “direct development toward existing growth centers,” “Minimize non-farm development that is not within existing growth centers or an extension of an existing growth center,” and “Preserve diverse agricultural resources.”
Small lots in the city. . .
Just for the record, the Census Bureau says that every city, town, suburb, and unincorporated concentration of people in North Dakota occupies less than 1 percent of the state’s land area. “Urban areas,” including all concentrations of 2,500 people or more, occupy just 0.2 percent of the state. (You can find a summary of 2000 Census urbanization by state in the Guide to the American Dream.)
The U.S. Department of Agriculture agrees: as it measures urban areas, they cover just 0.6 percent of the state, and as it measures development (which includes rural roads and railroads), it covers just 2.5 percent of the state. Moreover, USDA data from 1982 through 1997 show that urbanization is paving over North Dakota farmlands at the hardly frightening rate of less than 0.01 percent of the state’s land area per year.
. . . big lots in the suburbs.
Still, some of the recent growth in the Bismarck area is in the form of large (2-acre) lot developments outside of the city. With prices as low as $200,000, the resulting homes are quite affordable, but no doubt someone somewhere frets that they are “wasting land.”
So SRF has made the control of sprawl the centerpiece of its draft plan. It claims that sprawl imposes high costs on the county, but it admits that it has no local data to support that. UPS, FedEx, and local electricity and telephone companies all manage to serve rural, suburban, and exurban developments without losing money. But the only way SRF can think of for the county to do the same is to have the county restrict development in rural areas.
There are many other ways the county could approach this problem. How about local improvement districts, which charge homeowners in the district an annual fee for, say, 20 years, the proceeds of which are used to repay bonds that are sold to finance new infrastructure? How about simply letting developers figure out how they are going to cover infrastructure costs on a case-by-case basis?
Naturally, SRF did not consider, or even mention, any such alternatives in its plan. Although the Rational Planning Model (set goals, develop alternatives, evaluate impacts of alternatives, then write plan) is taught in every beginning planning class, SRF skipped directly from the goals to the plan without even evaluating the impacts of the plan, much less any of the alternatives it failed to consider. Of course, that’s how the big metro areas like Minneapolis and Portland write their plans, so why shouldn’t Burleigh County do the same?
If you ask the Antiplanner, this plan should be considered DOA. In fact, if I were a county commissioner, I would seriously consider trying to get some of the taxpayers’ money back or disciplining whatever employee recommended that the county hire SRF. If Burleigh County needs a comprehensive plan, it should write one appropriate to a moderately growing rural area, not a huge, fast-growing urban area. That means that sprawl should not only not be the top priority, it shouldn’t even be on the list.