The sprawl defenders counter by saying, "But people want to live in these suburbs." Do these families really want long commutes and higher taxes? I don't think so. This pattern has been forced on suburbanites by government programs run amuck.

Generations of laws and tax incentives designed to promote growth led to today's sprawl. Local government regulations made the close, intimate suburban street of 1920s suburbia illegal, banned the neighborhood corner store and mandated excessively large lots.

Federal and state highway grants fed local politicians' desires to build endless ribbons of six-lane superhighways, and sewer subsidies made wild lands suitable for housing. Foolish fiscal policies like California's Proposition 13 led cities to zone too much land for industry and commerce and not enough for housing, forcing more suburban expansion.

These government programs created an exacerbated suburban sprawl. To take the first step toward better communities, the government must restrain itself from creating more problems.

Government should stop building highways that encourage sprawl and induce traffic, stop subsidizing construction in flood plains where yearly losses are costing taxpayers billions of dollars, and stop giving grants and tax incentives that encourage developers to fragment wildlife habitat and countryside.

Local communities also can adopt smart-growth planning solutions that are appropriate for their areas. In the November election, voters from California to Cape Cod, Republicans and Democrats alike, approved more than 200 ballot initiatives dealing with growth management, land use and urban revitalization. In New Jersey, under GOP Gov. Christine Todd Whitman's leadership, voters even in the tax-averse Republican counties of the state overwhelmingly approved the use of $1 billion in tax revenue for the conservation of open space and farmland.

The voters' actions were not simply stabs in the dark. Communities that used smart-growth policies to guide their growth have seen great rewards.

A study by the Southeastern Michigan Council of Governments showed that Michigan communities with smart-growth policies saved $53 million in road costs and $33 million in sewer costs, cut housing costs by 6.4 percent and reduced the destruction of open land by 12 percent. That is the kind of success applauded by environmentalists and conservatives alike.

Healthy, livable suburban communities are not impossible. They simply will require that we discard the anti-environmental reactionaries' tired rhetoric and learn from the mistakes caused by decades of unplanned growth. Conservatives and environmentalists then will find common ground to start debating plans to save money, reduce taxes, rein in government and promote family-friendly communities.

Carl Pope is the executive director of the Sierra Club.

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