What to Do When Main Street Is Legal Again: Regional Land Value Taxation as a New Urbanist Tool

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For most of the twentieth century, Americans left urban centers for suburban landscapes.

[O]ver the last one hundred years, American land use policy [was] designed to segregate uses of land, reduce population density, and facilitate the use of automobiles . . . . [S]uburban sprawl has come to represent the American dream, where citizens can own a home, two‐car garage, both back and front yards, and if you are truly lucky, a pool.

Indeed, an antiurban attitude is ingrained in the American psyche. Americans’ deeply rooted desire for independence coupled with an abundant supply of low‐priced land created a low‐density land use pattern. The growth of affordable automobiles in the twentieth century allowed for satisfaction of the deeply ingrained American desire to spread out. Consequently, Americans fled urban areas for the suburbs. The proliferation of low‐density development typified by post–World War II suburbs is called sprawl. Unfortunately, this low‐density development is inefficient and causes a host of social and environmental problems.

City planners, environmentalists, and academics alike widely criticize the proliferation of suburban sprawl. These critics argue that sprawl is fundamentally problematic because it is unsustainable and destroys vibrant neighborhoods and communities. “Evidence of sprawl surrounds us . . . . [S]prawl consume[d] nearly six million acres of farmland annually [from 1954 to 1974] . . . .” Sprawl makes us overly dependent on automobiles, “which imposes enormous costs and degrades our quality of life . . . [by] impos[ing] burdensome infrastructure costs” and creating a society stratified by “income, education, race, and ethnicity.”

This Comment assumes suburban sprawl is inimical to the common good and ought to be slowed and, if possible, reversed. My purpose is not to prove that there is a problem, but to explore a potential solution: Land Value Taxation (LVT). Finding a solution, however, begins with identifying the causes of the problem. Accordingly, Part I briefly examines single‐use zoning’s contribution to the problem of sprawl, and concludes that New Urbanists are making tremendous progress toward reforming single‐use zoning. I suggest that our current property tax system is another cause of sprawl and, given the success of zoning reform, ought to be the target of New Urbanist policy advocacy. Part II posits LVT as an alternative to our current single‐rate tax system and explores LVT’s dual ability to incentivize denser development and disincentive land speculation at the suburban fringe. Part III concludes that LVT can be most effectively implemented at the regional level.

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