Director's Take

Who’s Paying for Urban Sprawl image

Who’s Paying for Urban Sprawl


In order to support the needs of our city, we have not taxed ourselves appropriately for urban sprawl… that pesky phenomenon of, according to Merriam-Webster, “the spreading of urban developments (such as houses and shopping centers) on undeveloped land near a city.”
As cities start to develop, city planners can choose to build up, preserving the land around them and utilizing existing infrastructure, or to build out, creating more distance between various community services and uses. More to the point, as these residential and commercial developments are built, they require streets, lights, sewers, water – and ongoing maintenance of such – for people who choose to have a bigger house or yard, or live near wider roads, or simply not live in an urban center. Those infrastructure needs are typically paid for through taxes or service fees, but as we spread out from our community centers, these growing maintenance and infrastructure costs are not supported through our existing taxing structures. I’m not even talking about the geographical expansion of services such as police, fire, garbage collection, etc.
As folks decided to move away from the city, their expectation has been that all the infrastructure provided in the city center would expand to meet them. But who is paying for that cost of development, which also has led to a higher use of land space and higher cost of maintenance? Admittedly, some of Kentucky’s issue is thanks to a strange cap on our property tax rate, put in place in the 1970s.
However, it’s still a little troubling that there is public sentiment questioning equality of capital expenditures in the city center v. their neighborhood… AND that they want to pay lower taxes. We must recognize that Downtown and adjacent neighborhoods occupy a relatively small portion of the city’s total land mass—about 2-3 square miles, constituting less than 1% of all of Louisville, yet generates more tax revenue than any other neighborhood and has the largest job center with the majority of visitors, hotel rooms, and attractions.
I don’t know any city budget that could support the continuing new infrastructure builds AND maintenance for all surrounding (mostly residential) areas to the same extent as the city center without either reducing service or raising revenues somewhere. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that everyone should live in the urban core … but it is imperative that we acknowledge the cost associated with urban sprawl and what we are asking of our public dollars and of our community health.
I promise, density is not a bad word.

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