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'This Land' examines the brawl over sprawl

This Land: The Battle Over Sprawl and the Future of America
By Anthony Flint
Johns Hopkins Univ., 288 pp., $24.95

The American Dream is wide-open spaces, big houses, and good schools in safe communities . What we've been getting instead, says Anthony Flint, is an American nightmare of mind-numbing sprawl. Flint describes a nation choking in traffic, with commuters wasting hours in cars, harming the environment (and spending ever-increasing amounts to fill their gas tanks), trapped in an anaesthetizing landscape of strip malls and big box stores like Wal-Mart. ``This Land: The Battle Over Sprawl and the Future of America" skillfully reveals how we got into this mess, and suggests ways for getting us out.

Flint explains the heavy costs of sprawl -- environmental damage, dependence on oil, ill-health (he cites studies connecting sprawl to obesity), and the burdens it places on local governments. He also explains why sprawl is so prevalent, showing how traditional zoning laws and the profit motive of developers and home builders (Flint calls them ``Sprawl Inc.") contribute to the problem.

Sprawl has become a polarizing political issue, not just in raucous town meetings, but at the state and national level . Flint, a former Boston Globe reporter, meticulously examines the anti-sprawl movement as embodied by New Urbanism and ``smart growth." New Urbanism envisions neighborhoods with houses set close together on small blocks, with stores and parks within walking distance . Smart growth is a set of planning principles to ``redirect state resources to encourage more compact growth that doesn't rely exclusively on cars," such as increased funding for public transit.

Flint presents case studies of smart- growth initiatives in places such as Portland, Ore. In 1974, Oregon passed Act 100, which established restrictions on new development, especially outside cities. These restrictions preserved farmland and natural areas from the threat of sprawl. Recently, however, opponents of Act 100 challenged the restrictions, saying they violate property rights and represent a ``taking" of property under the Fifth Amendment for which landowners must be paid . In 2004, Oregon voters overwhelmingly passed a measure allowing landowners to obtain state compensation when development restrictions decreased the value of their property.

In Oregon and nationally, a bare-knuckle battle ensued. Anti-sprawl advocates have been caricatured as ``a bunch of elitists and long-hairs" undermin ing the free market and private property rights with Soviet-style social engineering. Flint goes inside the backlash against the smart growth movement, showing how developers, builders, and conservative think tanks joined together to attack anti-sprawl initiatives. He interviews property owners such as Rhode Island's Anthony Palazzolo, who bought land and later discovered that state environmental restrictions prevented him from developing it. Palazzolo sued the state and lost, but he's among a growing number of plaintiffs seeking to become ``the Rosa Parks of property rights." The court battles continue, as does the fight in the court of public opinion.

Flint concludes with recommendations for ``sensible growth." He suggests a complete overhaul of present zoning, allowing for ``new approaches like residences over ground-floor retail." He also wants citizens to get involved in the process, on all levels -- such as working to improve public schools and re-evaluating their energy needs. Finally, he encourages the public to demand better media coverage of development issues. ``This Land" offers a provocative and insightful overview of the challenges of sprawl.

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