At Taxpayers' Expense

How Government Policies Encourage Sprawl
in Erie and Niagara Counties

2006 Revised Edition


The word sprawl brings several images to mind—new housing developments farther and farther from the city core, big box stores on busy suburban streets, and loss of green space. The physical manifestations of sprawl are easy to see. What one might not immediately consider, however, are the high municipal costs associated with uncontrolled, low-density suburban development.

While sprawl has many ramifications—economic, environmental and social––we’d like to examine in particular how current government policies encourage sprawl, and look more closely at whether such policies are fiscally prudent in light of the burdens they bring to the taxpaying public.

In evaluating any proposal for development, it is important to understand the true costs involved. Sprawl is expensive—for governments and, ultimately, for taxpayers. Whether it is money spent directly on projects such as building new roads or widening old ones, or money lost when development agencies provide tax breaks and incentives to businesses to relocate to suburban office parks, sprawl has financial ramifications that must be examined in depth and accounted for in full. New residential development requires additional municipal services—new schools, police and fire protection, roads, sewers and water lines—that are only partially funded by development fees and property taxes for those new homes. The balance is paid by municipal budgets, subsidized by residents already living in the village, city or town providing the service.

While some of the subsidies that promote sprawl are at the federal level (most notably in federal highway spending), there are many ways that decisions made by local governments add to the problems of unchecked growth even as they subtract something vital from the quality of life of their communities.

Planning and managing growth are fundamental responsibilities of any local government. It should be recognized that sprawling development can actually be more costly in the long run, not only to a particular municipality but also to those around it that may be affected by its decisions. Inter-municipal collaboration could curb costs and prevent actions that are detrimental to neighboring communities. These are complex issues, and sprawl is just one of several components involved; however, the role it plays must be examined and evaluated.

To download a copy of this document, you will need to have Adobe Acrobat Reader on your computer.

Download At Taxpayers' Expense (PDF, 256 KB).