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Examining the fiscal benefits of smart growth.

A number of local governments across the country have done studies comparing development strategies to understand their impact on municipal finances. These studies generally compare development scenarios and help local leaders make informed decisions about new development, based on the associated costs or revenues. Many found that a smart growth approach would improve their financial picture, whether by saving money in upfront infrastructure construction costs; reducing the cost of ongoing services like fire, police, and ambulance; or by generating greater tax revenues in years to come. This article excerpts Building Better Budgets. A National Examination of the Fiscal Benefits of Smart Growth Development, the first report to aggregate those comparisons and quantify how much other communities can expect to save, on average, by using smart growth strategies. development. The information comes from 17 case studies at varying levels of government. (1)


In general, smart growth development costs one-third less for upfront infrastructure. The Smart Growth America report concluded that smart growth development would cost an average of 38 percent less than conventional suburban development for upfront infrastructure. Some studies have put this number as high as 50 percent.

All development requires infrastructure to support and supply it. The studies included in this article primarily refer to roads, water lines, and sewer lines, which account for most of the infrastructure cost associated with new development. Smart growth development patterns require less infrastructure, meaning upfront capital costs, operations, maintenance, and, presumably, cost for eventual replacement are all lower. Smart growth development also often reuses existing infrastructure, lowering upfront capital costs even more.

* In the City of Champaign, Illinois, a smart growth approach to future city development could cut the upfront cost of infrastructure from $123 million to $71 million--a savings of $52 million, or 42 percent, over 20 years. (2)

* In the City of Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, and Phoenix, Arizona, a smart growth approach for specific development projects could save between 32 percent and 47 percent in upfront infrastructure costs. (3)

* The State of Maryland found that following a smart growth approach would save approximately $1.5 billion per year statewide on new road construction through 2030, reducing overall costs by 28 percent and the costs to local governments by 60 percent. (4)

* In the State of California, a smart growth approach could reduce infrastructure costs by $32 billion, or 20 percent, statewide through 2050. (5) The same study conducted a more detailed analysis of small-lot single-family developments and found that locating such a development in a smart growth location would cut the cost of infrastructure in half. (6)

* In rural areas with 10- to 40-acre ranchettes, the infrastructure savings associated with smart growth patterns are likely much higher, perhaps as much as 65-75 percent. (7,8)

The survey determined one-third savings in upfront infrastructure costs by compiling the estimated savings from case studies considering infrastructure costs. (9) The upfront savings figure is a conservative average reflective of available data on the matter. The case studies compared urban and suburban growth between a smart growth and a conventional suburban development. Case studies examining fiscal impacts of rural development scenarios were excluded because their geographic differences produced significantly different savings, as noted in the final point above.


Smart growth development saves municipalities an average of 10 percent on ongoing delivery of services. The survey concluded that smart growth development saves municipalities an average of 10 percent on ongoing public services such as police, ambulance, and fire service.

Many public services are extremely sensitive to a community's pattern of development because the geographical configuration of a community--and the way the community is connected geographically--profoundly affects service delivery. A smart growth pattern will, at the very least, save operating costs simply because service vehicles can drive fewer miles. In some cases, the actual number of vehicles and facilities can be decreased, along with the personnel required to provide those services.

* The City of Charlotte, North Carolina, concluded that the cost of serving a smart growth neighborhood is approximately one quarter of the cost per capita of serving a conventional suburban neighborhood. (10) Based on Smart Growth America's estimates, a smart growth approach could eliminate the need for two future fire stations in Charlotte, saving the city $13 million in capital costs and more than $8 million per year in operating costs. (11)

* In Champaign, a smart growth development scenario for the city's future growth would cut service costs by 23 percent, or $19 million, over 20 years. (12)

* The City of Fresno, California, found that a smart growth approach would reduce service costs by nine percent. (13)

* A new study of the City of Nashville, Tennessee, found a 13 percent decrease in service costs in a smart growth scenario. (14)

* The savings on services in rural areas are much higher, perhaps as much as 85 to 90 percent. (15,16)

The survey determined an average of 10 percent savings in service delivery costs by compiling the estimated savings from case studies considering service costs. (17) Services considered across studies were not consistent, and levels of service and economic conditions vary. However, all case studies consistently demonstrated a cost reduction in delivery of services examined when pursuing smart growth development. The overall savings figure is a conservative, rough average of savings reflective of available data.


Smart growth development generates 10 times more tax revenue per acre than conventional suburban development. The survey concluded that on a per-acre basis, smart growth development patterns produce far more tax revenue than conventional suburban development. Tax revenue, for the purposes of this article, typically refers to property taxes and sales taxes, and in some instances licensing fees and other small sources of revenue. Property tax in particular is an extremely important source of revenue for most communities. In a 2010 U.S. Census survey of local government budgets nationwide, 48 percent of revenue from municipalities' own sources came from property taxes, and 10 percent came from sales taxes, though the relative importance of these taxes varies across the country because of state tax laws. (18)

* In Nashville-Davidson County, Tennessee, a smart growth project in a brownfield location would generate twice as much revenue per unit --and 42 times as much revenue per acre--as a conventional suburban development in a greenfield location. (19) This study examined property tax from the project, sales tax likely to be generated by its residents, and other miscellaneous taxes generated by residents and businesses.

* Fresno concluded that a smart growth development strategy would generate almost one and a half times as much revenue per acre as a conventional suburban development scenario in greenfield locations. This conclusion holds despite the fact that the market for downtown development in Fresno is relatively weak. (20) This study examined property tax from the project and sales tax likely to be generated by its residents.

* Analysis by the statewide planning effort Vision California found that on a per-acre basis, smart growth development could produce three and a half times as much tax revenue as conventional suburban development. (21) This study examined property taxes from the new development, sales taxes likely to be generated by new residents, and miscellaneous taxes such as vehicle license fees from new residents.

* A study for the City of Raleigh, North Carolina, concluded that a six-story, smart growth building downtown produces 50 times as much property tax revenue per acre as an average big box store. Even a three-story residential building produces more property tax revenue per-acre than a major shopping mall. (22)

These studies typically included both residential and commercial development, though in some cases it was only one or the other. The per-acre measurement of tax revenue is extremely important because land is a precious commodity for every jurisdiction. It is true that in some cases the total dollar amount of tax revenue in conventional suburban settings can be very large, but those conventional suburban developments consume large amounts of land. Many U.S. cities have a constrained land supply and must husband their land resources carefully to protect their solvency. Increasingly, counties--especially counties in or near metropolitan areas--are also land-constrained. In addition, increasing the per-acre tax yield from property that is developed will reduce the pressure to either increase taxes or allow additional development on land that is currently used for low-density housing, agriculture, or other activities important to a community.


Smart growth development's potential for lower costs and higher revenue means this strategy can sometimes become a steady source of surplus for a municipality. These communities know firsthand:

* In Sarasota, a smart growth residential project required $5.7 million in infrastructure while generating $1.98 million in property tax revenue per year. By contrast, a comparable conventional suburban residential product required $10 million in infrastructure while generating $239,000 in tax revenue per year. Thus, it would take three years of county tax revenue to pay back the smart growth infrastructure cost--but 42 years of county tax revenue to pay back the suburban infrastructure cost. (23)

* An analysis of Champaign found that a smart growth scenario generated a $33 million surplus to the city, while a conventional suburban scenario generated a $19 million deficit. This was true even though the conventional suburban scenario generated $19 million more in aggregate revenue over 20 years, yet its costs are so much greater as to negate any surplus. As with other studies, on a per-acre basis, the smart growth scenario generated twice as much revenue as the conventional suburban scenario --about $48,000 per acre over 20 years, compared with $23,000. (24) Revenues in this analysis included primarily property tax funds but also motor vehicle taxes, sales taxes, and other sources of tax revenue.

* A study of Nashville-Davidson County found that a smart growth development project downtown produced a net surplus of $1,930 per unit, or 48 times the surplus produced by conventional suburban development of $40 per unit. On a per-acre basis, the smart growth project produced a net surplus of $115,720 per year, or 1,150 times the surplus produced by the conventional suburban development ($100 per acre). (25) The tax revenue analyzed was mostly property tax, but also sales tax likely to be generated by the project's residents and other miscellaneous taxes.

The research above suggests that in some cases, conventional suburban development can create a small operating surplus for local governments providing services. These operating surpluses are highly dependent on home prices, tax rates, impact fees, assessment districts and other factors that can vary greatly. As the Champaign example suggests, in many cases, the only way a jurisdiction can make up the difference between a smart growth alternative and a conventional suburban alternative is to target high tax producers such as expensive homes.

The survey compiled the savings from case studies considering revenue and generated an average. Only the case studies that examined both property tax and sales tax were included. (26)

While some case studies included fees and other small sources of revenue, these have only a minor impact on overall revenue. As mentioned previously, the majority of revenue for a municipality is generated through sales and property taxes. Case studies yielding extreme tax revenue differences between development scenarios were considered outliers, and therefore were not factored into the average.

Overall this analysis would be stronger if more data were available. Smart Growth America found only four municipalities that have studied the ability of different development patterns to generate a surplus. The fact that so few surveys are available clearly shows that more towns, cities, counties and states could benefit from taking a hard look at their development strategies.


This research clearly shows that smart growth strategies cost less upfront and improve revenue over the long term. Every community is different, and not all communities' outcomes will be the same; however, this research consistently demonstrated lower costs and higher revenues from smart growth development.

These strategies can improve public balance sheets for decades to come. With at least one-third of local government spending sensitive to the geographic patterns of development, that could amount to billions of dollars each year in savings for local governments nationwide. Most important are the decisions each community makes about its financial future. Every community can use these national figures to inform their decisions about whether to grow in different, perhaps more beneficial, ways.


Most research comparing smart growth and conventional suburban development is based on the metropolitan context--comparing a suburb to a city neighborhood, for example, or different development scenarios in a suburb. But recent research suggests that the fiscal impact of smart growth is even more beneficial for rural areas.

A consulting firm conducted three fiscal impact analyses for rural areas in the Intermountain West: Beaverhead County, Montana', Gallatin County, Montana; and Natrona County, Wyoming. All three of these analyses yielded the same result: A smart growth approach would dramatically lower the cost of infrastructure and result in much higher revenues that cover more of the cost of both infrastructure and operating expenses.

For example, Natrona is a county of 5,300 square miles with 75,000 residents, where Casper is the county seat. The consultant examined three different development scenarios, each of which would theoretically build 500 new homes in the community: A "ranchette" scenario in which the homes are built on 35-acre lots', a "rural exurban" scenario in which the homes are built on 6-to I 0-acre lots: and a "metro infill" scenario in which the homes are built on one-acre lots located within or adjacent to existing cities such as Casper.

The results of the analysis were dramatic. On infrastructure, the metro infill scenario cost approximately one-quarter the cost of the ranchette scenario and one-third the cost of the rural exurban scenario. As for operating costs, the metro infill scenario would cost only 12 percent of the cost of the ranchette scenario, and 15 percent of the cost of the rural exurban scenario.

In addition, projected tax revenue was significantly higher for the metro infill development scenario, which would cover 90 percent of the required capital cost, compared with only 25 31 percent for the other two scenarios. On the operating side, the metro infill scenario would cover 68 percent of operating costs compared with only 8-10 percent for the other two scenarios.

In other contexts, a subdivision of one-acre lots might not be considered "smart growth." But when compared to the rural sprawl scenarios that are characteristic of the Intermountain West, the financial advantages of even one-acre lots are enormous.

This article focuses on three aspects of the differences between smart growth and conventional suburban development: the cost of upfront infrastructure, the cost of providing ongoing services, and the tax base created by additional This article is adapted from Building Better Budgets: A .National Examination of the Fiscal Benefits of Smart Growth Development, a May 2013 report prepared by Smart Growth America with the assistance of Strategic Economics. It is available at


(1.) TischlerBise, "Fiscal Impact Analysis of Development Scenarios" (2010), prepared for the City of Champaign, IL.

(2.) J. Ford, "Smart Growth & Conventional Suburban Development--An infrastructure case study completed for the EPA" (Providence, RI: Morris Beacon Design, 2010).

(3.) K. Choi and C. Fricke, "Analyzing the Impact of Smart Growth on Projected Road Development in 2030" (Maryland Department of Planning, 2010).

(4.) Calthorpe Associates, "Vision California: Charting Our Future," Statewide Scenarios Report (2011).

(5.) Ibid.

(6.) RPI Consulting, "Natrona County Fiscal Impact Analysis Study" (September 2012).

(7.) RPI Consulting. "Gallatin County, Montana Fiscal Impact Analysis" (2009), Sonoran Institute.

(8.) Champaign, IL; Mount Pleasant, SC; Phoenix, AZ; Sarasota, FL; State of California: and State of Rhode Island.

(9.) City of Charlotte (NC), "Effect of Connectivity on Fire Station Service Area and Capital Facilities Planning" (2009).

(10.) Ibid.

(11.) TischlerBise, "Fiscal Impact Analysis" (2010).

(12.) City of Fresno (CA) Development and Resource Management Department. "Fresno General Plan and Development Code Update: Fiscal Impact Analysis of Concept Alternatives" (March 2012).

(13.) Strategic Economics, "Nashville Fiscal Impact Analysis Case Study" (2013), prepared for Smart Growth America.

(14.) RPI Consulting, "Gallatin County, Montana Fiscal Impact Analysis" (2009).

(15.) RPI Consulting. "Natrona County Fiscal Impact Analysis Study" (September 2012).

(16.) Champaign, IL: Fresno, CA; Nashville, TN; and Cost of Sprawl--2000.

(17.) U.S. Census Bureau, "State and Local Government Finances Summary: 2010" (September 2012).

(18.) Strategic Economics. "Nashville Fiscal Impact Analysis Case Study" (2013).

(19.) City of Fresno, "Fresno General Plan and Development Code Update" (March 2012).

(20.) Calthorpe Associates. "Vision California" (2011).

(21.) M. Silver, Presentation for the City of Raleigh, NC (2012).

(22.) Nashville, TN; Fresno, CA; State of California; Champaign, IL; and Asheville, NC.

(23.) J. Minicozzi, "The Value of Downtown: A Profitable Investment for the Community" (Asheville, NC: Urban3, 2009).

(24.) TischlerBise, "Fiscal Impact Analysis" (2010).

(25.) Strategic Economics, "Nashville Fiscal Impact Analysis" (2013). See Appendix C.

(26.) RPI Consulting, "Gallatin County, Montana Fiscal Impact Analysis" (2009).
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Title Annotation:Solutions
Publication:Government Finance Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 1, 2013
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