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“Between 1982 and 2001, about 34 million acres — an area the size of Illinois — were converted to developed uses … the rate of development between 1997 and 2001 averaged 2.2 million acres per year.”
– United States Department of Agriculture, National Resources Inventory

The roots of American culture tap deep into our rural heritage, reflecting the values and pride we draw from our history and our environment.

For nearly 400 years, dating back to the pilgrims’ arrival, the history of western development has been largely about claiming land: “Manifest Destiny” meant a divine contract guaranteeing unfettered growth; suburbia was the gift of a grateful nation to a generation recovering from World War II. Ultimately, the “American dream” is all about having a home, a piece of land beneath your feet, where you can pursue your unique vision of freedom.

But as surely as the wilderness gave way to homesteads, towns, and cities during the 19th and 20th centuries, suburban and exurban sprawl are overtaking the once-rural landscape as we enter the 21st century. Our nation’s population has increased by 7.2 percent between 2000 and 2007 alone, or almost 3 million per year, according to theU.S. Census Bureau. Meanwhile, the housing industry annually erects between 1 million and 2 million new homes (four out of five are single-family houses)— seemingly outpacing the population growth.

The challenge this presents is to protect our national heritage while permitting appropriate growth. This is sometimes referred to as “smart growth,” carefully planned growth to preserve the past for future generations. Yet, it seems, one person’s notion of “smart growth” may be, to another person, restraint of trade.

Throughout the United States small communities are facing challenges from developers — both builders and land owners looking to make an honest profit — who seek to create commercial, industrial, and residential projects on former farms, pastureland, and forests.

Generally, courts have held that local governments cannot arbitrarily limit development merely to avoid growth. The landowner has ownership rights over his or her property, or, as the old maxim dictates: Possession is nine-tenths of the law.

Yet, what townships, counties, and others can do “is to draw out the permitting process, throw up environmental roadblocks, and grudgingly — and slowly — comply with the letter of the law,” explains Witold Rybczynski of the University of Pennsylvania Wharton School, in Last Harvest, his latest book on land development.

If the developer’s resources and the potential profits are great enough, however, there are myriad ways in which they can influence or corrupt the system of checks and balances that have evolved over time, and sweep aside even legally sound land-use regulations.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s most current statistics on land development in the United States:

  • “Between 1982 and 2001, about 34 million acres — an area the size of Illinois — were converted to developed uses. By 2001, the total developed area in the contiguous United States was slightly more than 106 million acres.
  • “The rate of development between 1997 and 2001 averaged 2.2 million acres per year. This was the same average rate experienced between 1992 and 1997, but up from 1.4 million acres per year in the previous decade (1982-1992)
  • “Between 1997 and 2001, almost 9 million acres were developed, of which 46 percent came from forest land, 20 percent from cropland, and 16 percent from pastureland.”

These statistics are based entirely on nonfederal land in the 48 contiguous states, about 1.4 billion acres, of which about 6 percent is currently developed, according to the USDA. For purposes of its study, the USDA says: “Developed land areas are considered (permanently) removed from the rural land base.”

While 6 percent isn’t much, the question going forward seems to be, if the pace of development between 1982 and 2001 can be used as a standard, which 34 million acres — more than 2 percent of the total available land in the United States — are going to become homes and businesses in the next 20 years?

It stands to reason that the bulk of land development doesn’t occur in the farthest reaches of rural America, but more typically within an hour’s drive of suburban areas and urban centers. These are the areas that are in jeopardy over the next several decades as developers with deep pockets come looking for opportunities, such as farms that are no longer profitable in the global marketplace or landholders unable to face increasing tax burdens. What they are confronting are long-established communities, resistant to the cultural changes, including traffic, new schools, and big box stores, brought about by development.

Loudoun County, Virginia, is a case in point. An hour’s drive from Capitol Hill — when traffic is cooperating — Loudoun has been transformed over the past 20 years from a farming county into one of the fastest growing exurbias in the nation. Along the way, there have been some questionable practices that federal prosecutors have been investigating since 2007. At issue are potential conflicts of interest: possible collusion by developers and county officials to win approval for vast residential developments and land deals. And, more conspicuously, developers have bankrolled pro-development candidates’ war chests, gaining a majority of the County Board of Supervisors from 2000-2004.

Surely developers and preservationists alike have a valid voice in the political process. When local political will is overrun — arguably, corrupted — by business interests, there is the danger of bulldozing our heritage and values.

The Land Use Accountability Project begins its work by focusing on three communities in the Mid-Atlantic region facing clearly visible growing pains: Loudoun County, the Eastern Shore of Maryland, and the exurban area outside Philadelphia, including Bucks County.

Our goal, however, is to make this a truly national story: Connecting the dots of the experiences of these three communities with other communities throughout the nation. To that end, we will be covering development stories throughout the United States.

We also hope to inspire public involvement in this project. Our Land Use homepage includes information intended to help anyone, anywhere in the nation, faced with a land use development issue.

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