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Going home for the holidays provided a stark reminder of the open space that once was. I grew up in Watertown, formerly a farming community with a small industrial base in the center of town, near the rivers.
The rural character of my neighborhood long ago lost the battle to sprawl. A few months before I was born, my parents bought a house on an old farm, that for a little while was an airstrip. Pictures of me skating on a backyard rink as a two-year old show no other houses around.
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By my tenth birthday, the landing field in the back yard and the cow pasture across from the front yard were now populated by single-family raised ranches.
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All along the wooded roads to school, where empty lots and trees once stood, raised ranches. Boring architecture that doesn’t preserve the land and actually costs more in taxes than they generate. So why do we do it?
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When Watertown in the late 1990s allowed a giant grocery store to plow under a few more acres of forest, I wondered how long it would take for us to pull up the blacktop and replace it with the sugar maples, birch, ash and pines that once grew there.
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I moved to an urban landscape because I don’t like the suburbs. I like sidewalks. I like dense housing and people watching. I like public parks. I don’t see the need for every family to have a basketball hoop, when it takes five or six neighborhood kids to make a legit basketball game. Why not put houses a little closer together, create a park with one hoop and share it?
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The suburbs promote individualization and alienation. Cities promote community. City living demands patience and tolerance and cooperation. Suburban living promotes individual consumption of resources. Does everyone need a tractor to mow their .75 acre lawns?
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After many years of this development pattern, the fiscal and ecological consequences of suburban sprawl are clear. Single-family houses like those in Watertown do not pay enough taxes to support the schools that the people living in the houses require.
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Property taxes drive suburbanization. Towns make deals with the devil every time a planning and zoning commission allows a corn field to become a subdivision, and invite the soulless franchise big box stores in to create a property tax base.
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Yet at the same time, cities like Hartford and New Haven have a dwindling property tax base as well, but for a different reason. In cities like Hartford, a surplus of vacant lots sit empty, idle because it is too expensive to develop it.
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We could identify dozens of gorgeous old buildings around Hartford too costly to rehab. What creates this economic problem? This column long ago explored the concept of homesteading: selling some of those idle city properties to people for a dollar to bring bodies into the city.
Homesteading has succeeded in places like Savannah, Georgia, but I think this concept is too small scale. We need to think larger. What is the real cause of declining property values in the city? Racism? Safety-ism? People with money are afraid to live in the city because of crime?
I cannot tell how many times I have heard suburbanites express a morbid fear of Hartford. “You live where?” While we should mock the ignorance, we must acknowledge the harm it causes, as it also prevents investment in the city.
Hartford’s municipal government is starving for cash because property values are so low. The industrial revolution created an infrastructure in the cities that the remaining inhabitants cannot afford to maintain.
How do we fix it? Right now, state government sets the property tax policy that forces towns to develop open spaces. State government could change that by prioritizing the development of urban spaces first.
Imagine if we implemented a moratorium on developing single family houses in the suburbs, and created incentives for young families to move to cities. Like it or not, the trend of magnet schools suburbanites can no longer point to bad schools as a reason not to move here.
By prioritizing development of urban properties first, we raise the value of land in the city. We have to watch for the adverse consequence of raising the value so much that it drives out the poor who already live here. Ideally, this policy helps eliminate poverty.
Our policy should set a goal that 95 percent of all usable land in cities like Hartford should be developed before the Watertowns and the West Hartfords can plow under more farmland or open space.
Connecticut is small enough that we could actually inventory all the empty lots in cities like Hartford and New Haven and target them for development with long-range plans for livable, bikeable, walkable neighborhoods.
A prime example would be the empty parking lots between Capital Avenue and Buckingham Streets, written about by RealHartford.org. These should be brownstones with a park and a school, which Kathleen Palm Devine wanted to do 10 years ago. The urban infrastructure already in the cities does not require us to build more roads or lay more sewer pipe.
Rather than parking lots, this kind of development would increase the tax base, and drive up the value of land in the city, realizing more tax revenue.
The suburban towns will say the state is starving us for cash. However, this policy should allow the state to stop subsidizing cities with direct cash, as happens now. Cities should be strong and self-sufficient.
Once developers have fully developed the city in an intelligent way, then we can start looking to redevelop the suburbs. The strange part is that Connecticut is still losing more people than almost any other state, yet we are tearing up more of our open space than we need to.
I feel like I have written this column before, and maybe I have. This problem is well recognized. Back in 2006, then-New Haven Mayor John DeStefano ran for governor on a platform of property tax reform.
Just Monday, Lyle Wray, the executive director of the Capital Region Council of Governments, on CTMirror.org, called for revamping property taxes to deal with the “need-capacity gap.” Wray described property taxes creating unfairness in the amount people pay for land of the same value and the services they receive. Wray recognized how this drives sprawl.
“Spread out communities consume more energy per resident, losing the energy efficiencies of denser communities. Private, municipal and state resources are wasted to build and maintain essentially duplicate infrastructure that exists in other communities – churches, power lines, fiber optic cables, schools, roads, water and sewer lines,” he wrote.
To Wray’s call, I echo it, and add the need for policies encouraging people to live in cities.