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Muddy Waters

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Mark Twain once said there are "lies, damned lies -- and statistics." A curious example of this pronouncement came to light recently from the Charlotte Real Estate and Building Industry Coalition, REBIC for short. An old study, dating from August 2000, by a couple of UNC Charlotte economists, found its way into The Charlotte Observer a couple weeks ago under the headline "Growth pays its way, builders' study shows."

In a topsy-turvy portrayal of reality worthy of Alice and her looking glass, REBIC would have us discount our everyday experience of suburban development and its fiscal impacts, and substitute instead a world of arcane computations that show local tax coffers awash in revenue. We have, so their study claims, all the money we need to build schools, maintain fire, police and garbage services, provide water and sewer services, repair roads, fund libraries and any other public works we can think of. At least, that's what the math says.

This should come as welcome news to public officials struggling with one of the biggest budget crises in a long while, as residents clamor for services while state revenues to towns and cities are slashed to make up the massive revenue shortfall in Raleigh. The truth of the matter is, of course, this hypothetical revenue simply doesn't exist, except on the pages of the REBIC study.

One of the big arguments against badly designed low density suburban expansion, or sprawl as it is popularly called, is that not only does it cause serious environmental degradation, but the residential component of sprawl costs towns and cities more to service than they recoup in property taxes. Many studies illustrate this, reinforced by the experience of city administrators everywhere. The way sprawling suburbs are designed today, they don't pay their way. But there is plenty of evidence that more efficient patterns of urban and suburban land use, with more compact planning and design, can reduce service costs and create a more even balance between income from taxes and spending on public services.

REBIC's study tries to circumvent this argument in a number of ways, not least of which is the patina of respectability garnered by what is already being referred to as a "UNC-Charlotte study." Mathematically, the study adds all sorts of "indirect" revenues into the equation; these include sales taxes on the goods that people who live in the new houses might hypothetically buy, state tax refunds on heat and light which these residents might hypothetically use, and so-called "spin-off" revenues which are deduced (again hypothetically) by multiplying one theoretical number by another.

REBIC's argument that sprawl pays for itself is based on adding up every possible positive economic impact while discounting all negatives -- environmental costs for cleaning up water pollution, highway construction and maintenance, health care costs for diseases caused by bad air and so forth.

Smart growth advocates argue that we should grow, but that as we grow, we can plan our towns and cities in more advanced ways; the positive impacts can be enhanced and the true economic and environmental costs minimized by careful design. It's a win-win situation.

But not for REBIC. This report is evidence that they oppose our city's progress toward a more sustainable future.

Many folks have asked me how could bona fide academics at a respected institution of higher learning lend their talents to such a

report, bought and paid for by a special interest group, especially one dedicated to producing the kind of development that causes so much environmental damage and pollution?

"Aren't university faculty supposed to be the good guys?" my non-academic friends ask. "Isn't academia supposed to uphold the banner of progress, not the tattered standard of discredited ideas?"

"Generally, yes," I reply, "but universities in America are changing."

In an academic milieu driven increasingly by the quest for research funds from the private sector to make up for reduced federal dollars, it is not unusual for faculty to undertake "research" for private organizations,

generating reports and statistics that often cast a beneficent light on the

activities of the sponsors.

It should be stated very clearly that the faculty members concerned

have done nothing unethical, and are simply working within the theoretical scope of their discipline. Their report does not carry the logo or endorsement of the university. Their services are for hire just as are yours and mine. All sorts of budget numbers are routinely produced for institutions and companies everywhere. And, as we know from experience, most of them are wrong and have to be revised.

The figures in this report are just that -- hypothetical projections based on an artificially constructed set of assumptions and a mathematic manipulation of theoretical variables. To put it mildly, they do not provide a detailed case study of reality.

But the concern of smart growth supporters is that this series of qualifiers will be lost in public debate. REBIC ostensibly commissioned the opaque math, but what they really paid for are headlines like the one in the Observer. These will be remembered in council debates long after the argument in this column is forgotten. Crucial details fade from memory while strident claims stick.

Charlotte is showing signs of stirring itself to deal more effectively with problems of growth, trying to grow smarter, to obtain the real benefits of growth rather than hypothetical ones. The planning commission is starting to set higher standards of design that will alleviate some environmental problems. But instead of becoming part of the solution, REBIC remains steadfastly part of the problem. The coalition, which represents many of those developers whose casual profiteering has landed our city in its current mess, is trying to confuse the discussion with selective statistics.

I wish they'd spend their money on studies that support better ways to grow, and better ways of designing suburbs -- preserving open space as pollution filters, for example. Instead, they muddy the public debate with the same zeal as their developments pollute the waters of our creeks.*

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