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Strong Towns: a nice idea

Structures that keep expanding bear the risk of collapsing under their own weight. As towns and cities grow, they have more and more roads and sewer and water lines to maintain. Even though developers are generally required to install streets and sewer and water lines, at least part of the cost maintaining and replacing these facilities falls on local governments, i. e., taxpayers.

Through a mention on the always interesting land-use blog Austin Contrarian, I learned about Strong Towns, an organization whose mission statement makes the claim that our preference for growth by adding infrastructure should be replaced by a focus on getting a higher return on existing infrastructure. The existing approach, Strong Towns argues, causes economic stagnation and decline and a dependence on public subsidies, because it is a “Growth Ponzi Scheme.”

While many of the ideas mentioned on the Strong Towns website, especially the blog, include concepts that are common with New Urbanism, the Strong Towns movement is founded on the forecasts of civil engineers–not the dreams of idealistic planners–who believe that that the mechanism of developers adding infrastructure to facilitate growth is financially unsupportable.

In Missouri, where much growth takes place outside incorporated towns and cities, homeowner associations (HOAs) rather than local governments have the burdens of maintaining and replacing some of the infrastructure for planned communities and subdivisions. At the same time, no funding system is in place to support the public infrastructure (arterial roads, sewer plants, etc.) which serve planned communities that have HOAs. In addition, HOAs have their own problems, especially their dependence on volunteers to handle complex issues.

The hard reality is that residential developments rarely generate enough sales tax or property tax to make the residential development pay its way in the long run. Unless we want to raise property taxes, we need to get more from the infrastructure we’ve got.


About Harry Styron

I'm a lawyer and mediator who lives in Branson, Missouri, whose professional interests involve real estate, nonprofits, and local government. As of 2022, I'm shrinking my legal practice so that I have more time to mediate real estate disputes. I'm happy to mediate using video platforms like Zoom and WebEx, or in person anywhere in Missouri.

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