The Price of Sprawl

Do you know how much housing construction has been approved in Duval County? How about in St. Johns County? Do you know how much each new house costs you in declining property values and additional taxes? This secret information isn’t shared with the public, nor considered when city and county vote to approve yet more residential development. But it directly affects you as property owners and taxpayers, and even as renters.

The PriceOfSprawl.com is a public interest website that tells citizens how they are being robbed by residential overdevelopment in their community from a cost and a quality of life standpoint. We hope citizens will conclude that we cannot continue to subsidize residential development — our cities and county governments are drowning in red ink, our existing neighborhoods and infrastructure are deteriorating while we build new infrastructure in outlying areas to support new construction; and our property values will continue to decline as we build more residential housing that is not needed. PriceOfSprawl.com presents information on each city and county on the residential build-out, costs to the taxpayers, property value decline and water supply status. The information is simple to understand, local and obtained from credible information sources. Hopefully it will inform citizens, and arm them with facts to demand that their politicians make development pay its full costs, because to do less is to offload more burden on the taxpayers and deteriorate their quality of life.

BUILD-OUT: What is it?

Build-out is the population we would have if all houses already approved to be built in a given city or unincorporated county area were built. For example: In Duval County, our current population is 864,000, but if all land designated for residential development were built out, we would have 1,270,000. That is 47 percent more people than we already have. In St. Johns County, build-out is 182 percent more population than now. Currently, there are 170,308 residents; at build-out, there will be 480,659. Politicians don’t want taxpayers to know the already-approved build-out, don’t consider it when they say YES to new development and don’t want taxpayers to know what it is costing them. PriceOfSprawl.com puts that secret information into the hands of citizens so they can ask the tough questions, like “What will it cost?” and “Where is the money coming from?” when new development is proposed.

COSTS: Why is build-out important?

Why do politicians not want you to know? The already-approved houses and developments are ENTITLED to roads, schools, police and fire services — all the services that make up a community. Schools are the most costly components of community services. St. Johns is a bedroom community that is highly attractive because of its school system, so it has a higher proportion of families with children who will need schools. Nocatee alone will require nine schools. Our estimate of the costs of constructing these schools is $82 million in this one community alone. These costs are not paid by residents of the new neighborhoods. Their property taxes go for operating the schools; school construction costs are only partially paid by developers in impact fees. So all city or county taxpayers must pay for them. Keep in mind that in St. Johns County, according to the state Department of Education, it costs $9,500 per student per year, including operating costs and school construction, not including debt service and land costs. In April 2010, plans were made to add a new elementary school, costing $16 million, at Palencia, a newer sprawl development outside St. Augustine. Fire and safety services are another example. The Pine Island fire station for Palencia will service about 2,000 homes in the Philips Highway area, at a cost of $2.3 million. It was paid for by bonds paid by all residents in the unincorporated county area. Impact fees are a means to pay for construction of the infrastructure for schools, roads and safety services needed by new neighborhoods. However, rarely are full impact fees charged. Often, developers convince politicians to waive them in the interest of “generating jobs.” Our children’s children will be paying on bonds for the temporary construction jobs generated today. Meanwhile, property values of our existing homes decline as more housing is added to the oversupply.

PROPERTY VALUE DECLINE:

How overdevelopment robs you. In a real estate market where property values are not increasing or are declining, adding more housing decreases not just the builder’s opportunity to sell his homes, but it decreases all property values. In Northeast Florida, property values have declined 31 percent since 2006. The home value decline causes a decline in tax revenues. Mike Wanchick with St. Johns County reports a decrease of 33 percent in tax revenues since 2009. The county is evaluating a 1 percent increase in sales tax to compensate for the reduction in tax revenue. This is a direct subsidy to developers. Meanwhile, there are funding shortages to keep libraries, fire stations, mental health and social services, soccer fields and after-school programs open. These programs are all driven by the needs of additional population in St. Johns County.

WATER SUPPLIES

The St. Johns River Water Management District projects a 65 percent increase in population in Northeast Florida between now and 2030, according to their “official” figures. PriceOfSprawl.com numbers show the population increase projected is actually much more. They have been sounding the alarm that the drinking water supply will not keep pace with population growth. In fact, we are experiencing saltwater intrusion in wells along the coast, and are pulling water from areas west of Northeast Florida, causing water shortages in other areas. The story is not being told because the WMDs, before they were consolidated under the Scott administration, were reticent to discuss it because of the impact on development decisions. New residential housing uses 50 to 67 percent of its water for irrigation. With significant growth in new development that liberally uses irrigation, the water supply is not sufficient to support the projected population according to the official numbers, and definitely not according to the PriceOfSprawl.com numbers that are closer to reality. Alternative water supplies from treating surface water or desalination will cost 10 to 20 times more than ground water.

WHERE DID PRICEOFSPRAWL.COM GET ITS DATA?

Build-out: Local city and county comprehensive plans Costs: The state Department of Education and the state Department of Transportation Property Value Decline: Federal Housing Finance Agency, which finances existing homes under Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac Population: 2010 census. So what should residents do? First, they need to ask the questions “Where will the drinking water come from?” and “What will it cost?” The cost impact of new housing affects all residents, not just new development. Then they need to demand action. City and county politicians are reducing or eliminating impact fees. Residents must insist full impact fees be charged for new development. New homes may never pay for themselves, but impact fees can at least bring the price tag of new construction close to the cost.

Janet Stank

Stanko is a longtime environmental and civic activist in Northeast Florida. She oversaw the mapping project for the PriceofSprawl.com website.

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