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Suburban Sprawl Fueled by Cheaper Land

They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.

Economic growth has a darker side, when poor decisions by local officials and cheaper land prices collapse into a mish mash of roads, houses, shopping malls and office complexes known as sprawl. The root causes of sprawl vary from region to region but a common thread is the search for reasonable home prices, a difficult quest with today's housing inflation. What should be done about it, if anything, depends on your bottom line. If you looked at home prices closer in to the city and your jaw dropped, finding a house you can afford is your first priority. And your homebuilder just gave you what you want, even if it meant a longer commute. But what's the real price? Perhaps it's your quality of life as you sit in traffic, along with commuters and shoppers vying for a piece of pavement outside the mega-mall. Or it's a higher property tax bill as you pay for police, utilities and other services.

In Central Florida, demographic changes and economic factors combine to create the problem. The city of Orlando grew by 21,277 people during the 90s but yet another 20,000 flocked to the suburbs and populated homes that now stand where farms and pine trees stood before. In just over a decade, the Orlando suburbs ballooned by 550 percent. Developers searching for cheaper land got way out ahead of the local planning boards. Unfortunately, the areas targeted for development were far beyond the capacity or reach of sewers, water and other services. The end result is a haphazard maze of roads, housing and office complexes that drive demand for those services. Less-expensive land can be a boon to developers but it carries a big price tag for local governments that must provide schools, police and firefighters, more roads, utilities and other services. At some point, either the taxpayer or the businesses that use those services must ante up.

It's a chicken and egg debate. What came first, the road or the sprawl? Some say that roads lead to sprawl. Two new toll roads provided access for new homes and commercial development. Jobs are another ingredient. The Disney theme park workers need housing, as do retirees, and they go wherever the affordable homes are. The tourism district is the major source of jobs in Central Florida. But high-tech jobs added to the mix when local officials laid out the welcome mat for economic development. Office parks popped up and shopping districts attracted more businesses. Deltona, for example, added 18,715 people in the 1990s, more than enough to make it Central Florida's second-largest city, with a population of 69,543.

Fannie Mae Foundation's national survey of suburban sprawl provides the following rankings, starting with the worst:

    1. Atlanta 2. Miami 3. Detroit 4. Denver 5. Dallas 6. Washington, DC 7. Houston 8. San Francisco 9. Los Angeles 10. Boston

Sources used to create this article include Fannie Mae, Christine Shenot and the Orlando Sentinel.