While Cities Decay, We Pave Over Orchards

Today's New York Times reported on suburban sprawl in the richest farming region in the United States: California's Central Valley, the 50-mile wide basin between the Sierra Nevada and the Pacific Coast mountains. Some 250 crops grow in its irrigated fields. Yet, ironically, the Central Valley is leading the nation in another kind of growth: suburban sprawl. Current estimates say that one acre per hour of farm land is being yielded over to residential subdivisions, shopping malls and the like.

Californians have plenty of reason to worry. Fifty years ago the most productive farm county in the US was not the Central Valley's Fresno County, but Los Angeles County. Coalitions of farmers and conservationists have been working to stem the tide, either by enacting zoning restrictions or by offering direct financial alternatives to farmers. But while these efforts must be done locally, district by district and parcel by parcel, the economic pressures to cash in on the agricultural-to-residential jump in land values seem just too strong to resist. Farmland in the Central Valley goes for $10,000 to $15,000 per acre - but the same land priced for development brings at least $50,000 per acre. The temptation is strong enough that many observers doubt that anything can be done to slow the tendency toward sprawl.

Suburban sprawl creates other problems than simply threatening farmland. In a state whose water resources are already dangerously extended, it squanders precious water. And, because it spreads the need for public services over ever-wider areas, it makes those services costlier, demanding either tax hikes or cutbacks.

Evidently there are many actors in the society who are dismayed by the effects of urban sprawl: farmers, environmentalists, local government officials, and taxpayers. There is only one group, in the end, that it benefits: landowners - but their interests are powerful and very difficult to oppose. This is a question that stymies the experts. Isn't it odd that the economic interests of landowners are so directly opposed to those of nearly everyone else?

Lindy Davies - June 20, 1996