Opposing ‘urban sprawl’ … or opposing people?

Published September 1, 2002

Pinellas County, Florida, is the “smart growth” lobby’s dream.

“Smart growth” is the self-description of Europe-wannabe groups seeking to pack as many of us Americans into as little space as possible. Suburbs: bad. High-rise tenements: good. Backyards: bad. A single community park for the entire community’s leisure and recreation space: good.

Of course, Europeans often have little choice but to live in high-density communities. We Americans, fortunately, do have a choice … at least for now.

Postage stamp backyards

Pinellas County, a peninsula of land separating Tampa Bay from the Gulf of Mexico, has the highest population density in the State of Florida. It is more densely populated than Miami-Dade County, Broward County, and the North Miami Gold Coast. Real estate prices in Pinellas County are quite high, especially by Florida standards. The only way a middle-income couple has more than a postage stamp for a backyard is if their parents bought the land before air conditioning was invented.

Predictably, many Pinellas County families are looking to relocate to the Bay area outskirts, where land is relatively inexpensive, community facilities are new, and children can play in backyards rather than streets. This, however, would disrupt the smart-growth utopia, which in turn would upset the Europe-wannabes. Unable to use their powers of persuasion to convince people to stay bottled up in Pinellas County, the smart-growth groups have taken to the courts.

Just south across Tampa Bay in Manatee County, the City of Bradenton hugs the beach while the rest of the county is undeveloped. If you’re not in Bradenton, you’re either petting a cow or looking around warily for alligators and poisonous snakes. The county is still 90 percent rural, and land is relatively inexpensive … even though it is only a 30-minute drive from Tampa, St. Petersburg, or Sarasota, depending on which direction you go. This has become the perfect place for working-class Pinellas County residents to stake out a real backyard and a decent home.

Do anything, face a lawsuit

Unhappy that Manatee County will soon become merely 80 percent rural, smart-growth groups have begun suing at every opportunity. Build a house; face a lawsuit. Pave a street; face a lawsuit. Draw county water; face a lawsuit.

The same applies north of Pinellas County. The western parts of Pasco and Hernando counties, still predominantly rural, have seen significant growth as lower- and middle-income families abandon Pinellas County. However, no interstate highway connects these communities to the jobs in Pinellas County. Accordingly, the stretch of U.S. 19 in northern Pinellas County is among the most congested in the state, and it consistently leads the state in traffic fatalities.

As local and state officials plan a tollway to connect the counties, the Sierra Club and various smart-growth groups have filed lawsuit after lawsuit to indefinitely postpone the new road. People should either stay in Pinellas County, argue the smart-growth groups, or pay for their decision to move by dealing with the burdensome commute to and from their new homes.

So people are killed and families are destroyed on congested U.S. 19.

Just what do they want?

Taking the smart-growth groups at their word, the construction of the new Wal-Mart on U.S. 19 in Pinellas County should be the most welcome news they’ve heard in quite some time.

As area buildings age and grow more dilapidated, Wal-Mart sold a well-worn store to a local church and built a brand new facility directly across the street. The store has now become a Super Wal-Mart, selling groceries as well as typical department store items. The parking lot is full day and night, and neighborhood residents no longer travel across town to do their shopping.

An upgraded business rejuvenating the most populous community in the state: a smart-growth dream, right? Guess again. The smart-growth lobby has filed a lawsuit alleging Wal-Mart is unnecessarily harming the environment with its new facility.

In a community where asphalt is as plentiful as corn in Iowa, constructing a new building harms the environment?

“You can’t build in Pasco, you can’t build in Manatee, and now you can’t build here?!” exclaimed Wal-Mart shopper Mike Schafer in amazement. “Where can you build?”

“Are they really against urban sprawl, or are they simply against people?” wondered shopper J.J. Johnston.