The Cost of Sprawl to Lee County Residents

Someone wants to build a big new development out in the middle of nowhere in Lee County. As a Lee County taxpayer and resident, why should you care?

Easy… because that new development will cost you money.

Money needed to build or expand infrastructure to accommodate these new residents. Money lost in traffic tie-ups, property value erosion, and degraded water quality. Money tied up in expanding public services – water and wastewater, fire and police protection – to cover new and remote development.

Isn’t growth supposed to pay for growth? Yes, except when County officials don’t collect the money. Lee County Commissioners slashed impact fee collections to 20% of the recommended level for two years, then continued the collection cutback at 45% for three years (which was then extended five more years). This means new development will have gotten an almost free ride in paying for its impact to a decade by the time this issue comes back to the Commission.

The costs of growth did not go away, just the revenue to pay for them.

So, the costs were transferred to existing county taxpayers.

What kinds of costs are we talking about?

Want a better sense of the cost? One tool is available at priceofsprawl.com and there are plenty of other examples just a few keystrokes away.

A breakdown of potential costs ranges from the obvious to the unexpected:

  • Building far from the existing urban core takes roads; roads for the trucks and tradesmen and roads for the incoming residents. Often, new development puts new demands on existing roadways, creating a transportation capital investment backlog that’s overwhelming and underfunded.
  • Rural development far from the commercial core creates a car-dependent culture that means everything you do is a drive away, generating more vehicles logging more miles on local roads. (The fact that this traffic compounds the seasonal impact on roadways – since many of these new residents are not year-round occupants – exacerbates the impact further.)
  • The impact of rural development on other public infrastructure is either to create more demand (such as electricity, where capacity needs to be expanded into new areas, often at the expense of existing customers) or to underscore the lack of capacity (as in water and wastewater supplies, the first under severe pressure due to development and degradation and the latter still over-reliant on overused and under-maintained septic systems).
  • Another cost can be found in what is taken away by rural development – our rural landscape and habitat, the green space and historic flow ways essential for both environmental balance and ecological sustainability. Putting homes where there used to be habitat and rural roads in places we need for runoff helps degrade the natural systems that keep our environment healthy.
  • Rural development also pressures existing agricultural activities, increasing the economic pressure to turn fields and groves into homes and condos. As we grow less and build more, our community changes – and not always for the better.
  • Rural development also increases the chances of incompatible land uses having to craft an existence next to one another. The DR/GR issue is a prime example of that – limerock mining next to ag lands was the original design but, as large-tract residential development pushes out agriculture (and mining seeks to expand its footprint in the area), dump trucks and minivans start competing over the same overcrowded and underbuilt roadway (and new neighbors start to realize just how noisy and intrusive 24-hour mining operations can be).

This doesn’t begin to cover the additional costs and impacts on your health and social activities, the time you spend stuck in traffic or not able to enjoy other quality-of-life amenities.

It also doesn’t address the potential impact on your property values (thanks to overbuilding) and the County’s long-term sustainability in terms of basic necessities such as potable water, solid waste and wastewater management and more.

Given its history, Lee County should be the poster child for avoiding sprawl-style rural development; because that’s what created many of the issues the County has had to grapple with over the decades.

The County’s two largest residential developments (Cape Coral and Lehigh Acres with about 500,000 pre-platted lots) were classic examples of urban sprawl back in the 1950s and 1960s when the term was just being coined. Vast tracts of undeveloped land were ditched and dredged and draglined into mile upon mile of single-family home sites with no sites for schools, no water and sewer or other infrastructure, and inadequate commercial centers sited miles away from potential customers.

Coping with the poor planning, insufficient water and wastewater options, and a car-centric community that practically defied its residents to survive without a vehicle has been an ongoing struggle for decades.

One that, at least in the case of Lehigh, the County is still scrambling to get under control. (Cape Coral became a city and thus has tackled more of its growth issues using its municipal powers to retrofit, renovate, and repair.)

Earlier county efforts to embrace compact communities and smart growth principles for its development practices now face opposition from both the developers eager to turn open lands into remote subdivisions and the County officials eager to let them.

Let’s be clear: This new rural development is not driven by demand, but by the desire for profit.

Studies have shown there has typically been plenty of available housing options for Lee County’s projected growth and plenty of urban sites for new development that are already served by sufficient infrastructure (or where needed infrastructure could be upgraded at a reasonable cost).

But there’s a lot of money to be made in buying large tracts of undeveloped land cheap and building a new community from scratch – particularly when some of the costs of that development end up being subsidized by existing residents and taxpayers in terms of building or improving the infrastructure serving that remote development (and when the fees such new development should pay are reduced or waived by county officials).

What’s the alternative? Here are some ideas:

  • Restore and enhance “smart growth” development practices that guide development to urban areas with sufficient infrastructure; focus on building “community” rather than just “communities;” preserve existing natural/environmental assets; and foster diverse options in transportation, housing and land uses, among other attributes.
  • Make new development pay the real costs of growth, both by restoring 100% collection of impact fees as well as exploring other methods of assigning and assessing the costs of growth as discussed previously in this article. Too much of the County’s infrastructure is deficient or insufficient already thanks to decisions in the past. It’s time for decisions about the future to be paid for upfront.
  • Resurrect some of the excellent efforts in planning and sustainability undertaken and then abandoned by Lee County to restore the support for sound planning and public engagement that once was the hallmark of county actions. These include the complete Lee sustainability plan and the New Horizon 2035 planning effort, as well as formal efforts to address community resiliency, economic development, coastal impacts of climate change, long-range transportation needs, environmental preservation, water quality, wastewater management, surface water management, and more.

Clearly, what the County should NOT be doing is continuing to permit (without thinking) and subsidize (without funding) sprawl via rural development and further encroachment on protected and rural lands.

We all have seen the price – and paid the cost – for this unfortunate and unnecessary practice in the past.


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