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Scott Beyer

Scott Beyer

October 19, 2020

Growth Boundaries: Counterproductive, Expensive, and Anti-Urban

In June, I wrote for Catalyst about the high cost of regulatory limits to urban density. Because the regulations block an economically-productive form of development, I called them “America’s biggest domestic policy failure.” But if housing affordability is a concern, urbanists might be just as interested in limits to what’s pejoratively called “sprawl,” or growth.

Sprawl limits are referred to as “growth management”, and come through various laws—conservation easements; local, state or federal parkland preserves; large-lot zoning; and best known of all, Urban Growth Boundaries (UGBs).

UGBs are invisible lines that are drawn around certain metros, and represent where urbanized development must stop. They are generally enforced by regional bureaucracies, since they involve many municipalities working together and require periodic extension. Other localities have alternative forms of growth management that function like UGBs, and that are even less flexible.

There are usually two rationales for growth management. The first is environmental: it preserves natural areas on the metro fringe. That goal seems short-sighted, for reasons I’ll state below. The second is that growth management helps contain infrastructure costs. If growth cannot extend beyond a boundary, or does so incrementally, it will prevent excess extension of roads, pipes, etc. That might be a valid benefit, and one I’ll explore in a later article.

In this piece, however, I’m more interested in the costs of growth management. The main one is affordability; when governments draw lines where growth can and cannot go, it reduces the supply of buildable land, and thus also the supply of housing.

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