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Gary Mattson, Community and Regional Planning, (515) 294-7734
(before July 16)
Teddi Barron, News Service, (515) 294-4778


AMES, Iowa -- When it comes to preserving small towns and containing urban sprawl, policy planners in Iowa and elsewhere can learn from Florida's experience, says an Iowa State University professor.

"Florida has been in the forefront of the contentious battle over private versus public land-use management values that is occurring all over the country," said Gary Mattson, associate professor of community and regional planning at Iowa State.

Mattson's new book, "Small Towns, Sprawl and the Politics of Policy Choices--The Florida Experience," looks at growth management policies in Florida through the perspective of political-cultural core values of land ownership and self-determination.

In 1940, Florida had fewer residents than Iowa or Nebraska. Between 1950 and 1970, the population grew at a rate of 20 percent annually.

"Rural towns were inundated by a tide of population," Mattson said. "Towns with populations of 7,000 grew to 40,000, without having adequate municipal services, like water or sewer."

A central issue in containing sprawl is management of private property, he said.

"That's the root of the conflict," Mattson said. "In a way, we want land to be managed, but at the same time, we don't want someone telling us how to manage it. The debate in Florida was: Who should make the decision about land-use management?"

In 1972, Florida adopted a statewide, growth management act, which was modified in 1985. The law, which required every county to follow a comprehensive plan, was designed to protect the environment, contain the cost of municipal service delivery due to sprawl and, at the same time, maintain the state's economic development momentum.

"Sprawl is so insidious, so subtle, that the problems don't surface until it's too late," Mattson said. "By setting up a strategy ahead of development, Florida could specify where growth could and couldn't occur.

"When I was in college in the 1970s, their top-down model was considered the most innovative, progressive way to solve sprawl," Mattson said.

"In theory, it's the best and easiest way to do it. But, in practice, it failed dismally," he said.

By 1992, the law had been dismantled. Today, Florida faces a backlog of $38 billion in needed infrastructure improvements, Mattson said.

"They're trying to play catch up on their boom-boom attitudes toward development and growth," he said.

Currently, 10 states have growth management plans, which are variations of the Florida plan.

Mattson said the national debate on growth management is focused not on the question of goals, but rather on the issue of who should undertake the responsibility for local land use management.

"The better way is to get consensus locally, planning from the bottom up," Mattson said.

Politically, however, growth management proposals tend to defer to parochial, local interests, without considering larger, regional issues.

"All too often, municipalities focus on enhancing the town's tax base, expanding its job pool and protecting its infrastructure investments," he said.

"Study after study shows that sprawl costs municipalities more than the revenues gained because of the services and infrastructure required," he said.

Mattson proposes land-use management tools that can contain sprawl and help rural towns maintain their unique identities. His "Smart Growth" strategy proposes a "thinking regionally, but acting locally" approach to address social, fiscal and environmental issues.

One of the ironies is that sprawl occurs because people from an urban center want to live in a more rural, small-town, without losing the benefits of the nearby city. By doing so, however, they create suburbs and sprawl that actually undermine the sense of place they seek.

A sense of place fosters social interaction, connecting a community.

"Spatial place emotionally binds citizens together and encourages a willingness to be civically engaged," Mattson said.

Sacred symbols--landmarks like Main Street, courthouse squares or an old mill--provide visual and historic anchors to a town.

Successful suburbs and small towns also have viable town centers.

"The bottom line for town center vitality is the number of people and volume of pedestrian traffic it can attract," Mattson said.

Planners can also create or restore a community's sense of place by mitigating the technological impacts of sprawl. Mattson recommends using design elements and zoning laws that promote mixed use (commercial, office and residential) in pedestrian-friendly communities.

To solve the issue of financing public services, Mattson's recommendations include tax-base sharing, impact fees and a fiscal impact analysis requirement.

"A desire of each respective community to improve its tax base has fostered 'checkerboard' sprawl," he said. "Tax-base sharing is a fiscal policy tool that may assure tax relief for those communities who are not winners within the tax-base competition game."

Tax-base sharing eliminates the link between the cost of local public services and the need for a wealthy property tax base. It requires that each participating community contribute a potion of its growing tax base to a revenue pool. The money is reallocated to pay for infrastructure improvements to those towns that have lost in the competition for the new development. This approach is used in Minnesota, New Jersey and Maryland.

Impact fees require that either the developer or the new homeowner pay costs of the urban services required by the development. Impact fees shift fiscal burdens from existing residents to occupants of the new subdivision, Mattson said.

A fiscal impact analysis system at the local level helps towns or counties determine the full spectrum of revenues obtained and the full cost of public service expenditures to be paid out for any land-development project, he said.

"It answers questions like how many jobs and what type of jobs will be created? What's the impact on the existing tax base and tax revenue? How will it impact existing developments? It gives people something to debate," Mattson said.

Solutions to environmental sprawl include crisp edges and purchase of development rights.

Crisp edges are design elements that clearly delineate a town from its neighbors helping to protect a community's unique spatial identity, Mattson said. Greenbelts and open space can be part of the transition zone from country to town.

Local incentives like the purchase of development rights (PDR) can help preserve the countryside and compensate the landowner. The city or county acquires all development easement rights except land ownership and existing agriculture use.

"PDR is a sure way to achieve an urban growth boundary, without local government purchasing the land outright," Mattson said.

"Investing a million dollars to preserve 1,000 acres of prime farmland is a bargain. In Iowa, for example, it will save more than that in the future," Mattson said.

Under this plan, 10 states have saved more than 345,000 acres of prime farmland, while saving millions in infrastructure costs.

Mattson's book is published by University Press of America and is available at


Editors: A downloadable photo of Mattson is available at

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