‘Livable Communities’ Proposal Would Increase Government Meddling

Published June 1, 2003

Ignoring the 200-year-old practice of waiting until formally elected, Vice President Al Gore began his presidential duties in January when he issued his blueprint for a more “livable” America in the twenty-first century. Gore’s “Livable Communities” plan purports to be aimed at protecting the environment and creating economic opportunities for everyone. It also allows at least 12 federal agencies to further meddle in the daily lives of citizens.

Gore’s Livable Communities plan carries a $1 billion price tag and, as The Heritage Foundation has observed, manifests itself throughout President Clinton’s proposed fiscal 2000 federal budget.

According to a January 11 White House press release, the Livable Communities program “will provide communities with new tools and resources to preserve green space, ease traffic congestion, and pursue regional ‘smart growth’ strategies.” Money also will be available for the restoration of historic rail stations, hiking and biking trails, safety education, scenic beautification, and school design.

Gore wants his plan run by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), described by its own chief, Andrew Cuomo, as “a poster child for inept government plagued for years by scandal and mismanagement.”

Among HUD’s duties will be the creation of “compact development incentives” (for row houses and apartment buildings) and “ways to manage the economy and workforce to reinforce the region’s development strategy.”

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) also will be involved in reshaping America’s communities.

Ronald Utt, the Grover M. Hermann Fellow in Federal Budgetary Affairs at The Heritage Foundation, commented that “EPA Region 1 Administrator John DeVillars wasted no time in letting America know what he had in store for the New England region he will control under the Livable Communities Program. On the day the President’s budget was released, DeVillars announced in Boston that EPA will use its statutory authority aggressively to oppose and reshape development and infrastructure projects that contribute to sprawl.”

Utt adds that the Livable Communities concept appears to reflect the Washington elite’s “resentment and disdain for lifestyles dissimilar” to their own.

Among the chief complaints of anti-sprawl advocates is the “disappearance” of farm land in the wake of widespread development outside major urban areas. But Utt contends that less than 5 percent of America’s land is developed for commercial or residential use, and new development takes up just 0.0006 percent of the continental United States annually.

“Since 1950,” said Utt, “gains in farm productivity led to a 15 percent reduction in U.S. agricultural acreage, while production has risen by more than 105 percent. At current rates of urban expansion, it would take more than 250 years to urbanize the amount of agricultural land take out of production between 1960 and 1990.”

Utt contends that the federal case against the suburbs has no basis in fact and reflects nothing more than angry emotion.

“Today, roads are not more congested; they are less so than in the past, and costly mass transit systems are still the slowest way to get to work compared with commuting by car,” he said. Further, congestion is worse and the air dirtier in crowded cities and the older, close-in suburbs than the more distant suburbs.

Despite the many gains that have been made to protect the environment, such as the reforestation of areas along the eastern seaboard where population is dense and most of the land is privately owned, and the subsequent return to these areas of wildlife, critics of individual choice still abound.

But, says Utt, advocates of market-oriented solutions to environment problems need not despair.

“Fortunately for freedom-loving Americans,” Utt said, “the impressive body of analytical work on growth controls and sprawl produced by many of the conservative and market-oriented national and regional think tanks will play an important role in keeping the federal government out of an issue more properly the responsibility of state and local governments.”