Land use trends
(and problems) in Ohio

The Ohio landscape is being transformed. Cornfields and woodlots are being turned into strip malls, subdivisions, and suburban industrial parks. Historic small towns are becoming booming suburbs. Overall, the state's metropolitan areas are spreading outward into the surrounding countryside at a rate almost five times faster than population growth. And state government policies and programs are actively promoting this rapid process of land consumption.

In response, there's been a rising tide of concern about land use problems in Ohio. Residents of older cities and suburbs are realizing that the "growth" at the edges of metropolitan areas is often just outmigration from the urban core-a costly and destructive shell game of population and tax base that undermines the long-term investment society has made in existing communities. Residents of the new boom towns are finding that unmanaged growth often brings sudden demands for city services, higher taxes and the loss of the rural character that attracted them to the country in the first place. Environmentalists are understanding how the way land is developed impacts air quality, water quality, and energy use. Opinion polls are showing that people see the wisdom of maintaining existing communities and preserving open space.

The concerns tend to revolve around the following issues:

  • Rapid pace of land consumption: The strong economy of the past few years permitted larger and more expansive development that consumed more land. People have noticed that the countryside (including irreplaceable farmland) is disappearing in big chunks.
  • Fiscal constraints: The state has so much infrastructure flung over so great a distance that it's hard to maintain the old while building new roads, bridges, and sewer systems to serve new growth. State politics are increasingly about fights over scarce resources, and these fights have been exacerbated by the recent slowdown in the economy and resulting state budget crisis. Fiscal issues also are raised by the large amount of development occurring in township areas that lack the taxing capacity of cities.
  • Environmental constraints: There's growing awareness that Ohio's sprawling development patterns are creating intractable environmental problems. Water pollution comes from paving over the landscape. Air pollution comes from how much we drive. And our dwindling biological diversity comes from how we encroach upon our remaining natural areas.
  • Central county build out: In a few short years, Cuyahoga County will be the first county in Ohio to use up all its virgin land and be fully developed. It will then be faced with the novel question: What next? How does a county reorient itself from growth to maintenance and redevelopment? How can it improve (obtain better housing, better jobs, a better educated population) without growing? How can the county compete with new development in surrounding counties? This will require a new mindset focused on long-term sustainability. It is an historic turning point for Cuyahoga County, and it is a future other counties in the state will have to face before long (including Hamilton, Franklin, Summit, and Lake).
  • Big-box retailing: In the '90s, Ohio was invaded by big-box retailers like Wal-mart, Target, Kohl's, and Home Depot. New "power strip centers" have had sudden and dramatic impacts on communities. As a result, many more people are asking questions about how to maintain community character and quality of life.
  • Traffic gridlock: Even though Ohio as a whole has minimal traffic congestion in comparison to other states, some rapidly growing communities are being overwhelmed. Places along the outerbelt highways are struggling to deal with congestion that comes from building auto-oriented communities where everyone has little choice but to drive all the time. Dispersed development patterns are a major cause of changes in transportation behavior in Ohio (along with other factors, such as increased labor force participation). According to Access Ohio, the state transportation plan, while Ohio's overall population increased by only 0.45 percent over the past decade (1980-90), the increase in vehicle miles traveled in Ohio was 29.7 percent.10 Congestion will only get worse. The Ohio Department of transportation recently stated: "The overriding transportation trend in Ohio is congestion. Although ODOT has adequate and stable bridge and pavement conditions, the level and intensity of congestion continues to rise. Overall traffic volumes-and particularly truck volumes-continue to grow much faster than the department's ability to provide new capacity. The growth in congestion continues to overshadow all other trends that ODOT monitors."11
  • Changing needs: Our aging population needs walkable neighborhoods with stores and services close by. Growing numbers of childless households are seeking the excitement and diversity of a more urban experience. Most new suburbs don't meet those needs. In addition, public health authorities are recognizing that sprawling, automobile-centric communities discourage healthful exercise, such as walking, and contribute to the national epidemic of obesity.12
  • Social justice implications: More people are becoming aware that unbalanced development patterns in metro regions are leaving behind older communities, the poor, and minorities. As regions spread out, they tend to stratify along lines of race and class.
  • Global competition: Metropolitan regions are the geographies that compete in the global economy. Areas with social tensions, a deteriorated urban core, traffic congestion, and environmental problems will have a harder time prospering. On the other hand, regions that can provide vibrant urban neighborhoods and access to nature can attract highly educated workers needed for the new economy. Increasingly, business groups, such as the Metropolitan Growth Alliance in the Cincinnati region, have been studying these issues.
  • Yearning for community and authentic places: Many people are tiring of homes on lonely cul-de-sacs and suburban strip malls. They want real town squares, historic character, and scenic vistas. They see that current development patterns are destroying the places they care about. As Richard Moe of the National Trust for Historic Preservation says, "Development that destroys communities and the places people care about isn't progress. It's chaos."

Below are more detailed descriptions of three of these issuesthe rapid pace of land consumption and farmland loss, economic and social disparities, and impacts on water quality.

Land consumption

Ohio consumes a great deal of land with little net population growth, a particularly wasteful condition that might be called "sprawl without growth." Between 1960 and 1990, for instance, the amount of urbanized land in Ohio grew 61.5%, while population grew just 11.8%, a ratio of more than five to one.13

Another measure is the federal Natural Resources Inventory, which recorded that Ohio's "developed land" increased 21.0% during the 1990s compared to a 4.7% increase in populationa 4.5 ratio of growth in developed land to population growth. This was the sixth worst ratio among all states, according to a recent study by urban analyst David Rusk.14 On average, Ohio used up 1.24 acres of land for every net new resident from 1987-97. By contrast, Oregon (with the U.S.'s strongest, anti-sprawl state laws) used up only 0.31 acre per net new resident. With less available undeveloped land to begin with, Ohio's growth patterns consumed land at four times Oregon's rate.

A lot of the new development occurred on farmland around the state's metropolitan areas. Ohio lost 4,258,827 acres in farms between 1959 and 1992, a rate of 10,755 acres per month, according to figures from the U.S. Census of Agriculture. The seven counties in the Columbus metropolitan area (Franklin, Delaware, Fairfield, Licking, Madison, Pickaway, and Union) accounted for the largest amount of farmland lost, 425,101 acres, approximately 1,073 acres per month over the 33-year period, or a 22.9-percent change. Among metropolitan areas, counties in the Cleveland metropolitan area (Cuyahoga, Geauga, Lake, Lorain, and Medina) together lost 39.4 percent of their farmland. They were followed closely by counties in the Cincinnati metropolitan area (Hamilton, Butler, Clermont, and Warren), which lost 39.1 percent.15

Economic and social disparities

A process of outmigration drives much of the sprawl around Ohio, as higher-income households move out to new homes at edges of metropolitan areas. Left behind are central cities and older suburbs with increasing concentrations of poverty, higher social service costs, and reduced tax base. The disinvestment has been enormous. For example, in the 1980s and 1990s, Youngstown lost about 40 percent of its population. During the 1970s and 1980s, the City of Cleveland lost 59,000 housing units. Over the past 40 years, Cleveland has lost almost two thirds of its assessed property valuation (adjusted for inflation).16

And this process is not just affecting a few communities in the urban core. Housing policy researcher Thomas Bier of Cleveland State University's Levin College of Urban Affairs has studied how this pattern of outmigration of people and investment will affect the long-term viability of Cuyahoga County. He also notes that Cuyahoga County will be the first county in Ohio to be fully developed. Very little undeveloped land remains in the outer suburbs, and most of it will be used within 20 years.

Here are some of the implications of this historic transition:

Cuyahoga County is losing its capacity to grow its tax base through outer suburban development - which endangers the economic future of the county and region.

As Cuyahoga's land supply diminishes, development grows in adjacent counties. The value of residential construction in Cuyahoga County has not increased since 1986. During the same period the annual value of residential construction in Geauga, Lake, Lorain, Medina, Portage and Summit counties increased from $400 million to $1.2 billion.

While Cuyahoga's new suburbs are becoming built-out, its oldest suburbs are aging to where they are susceptible to decline. Two-thirds of the county's suburban homes were built before 1960; one-third of the homes were built in the 1950s alone.

Cuyahoga residents are moving to neighboring counties (Cuyahoga is the only county in the region that is losing population). One-third of Cuyahoga's homeowners who sell and purchase another home move to an adjacent county.
Between 1983 and 1999, growth in Cuyahoga's property tax duplicate lagged neighboring counties: Cuyahoga residential real estate increased in value 35 percent (with much of that resulting from suburban construction) while adjacent counties increased 81 percent (adjusted for inflation). Commercial real estate increased 50 percent while adjacent counties increased 60 percent. Industrial real estate decreased 22 percent while adjacent counties increased 30 percent.17

According to Bier, the economic stability of Cuyahoga County and the region depends heavily on extensive redevelopment of obsolete real estate, reuse of salvageable buildings, and reinvestment in Cleveland and the older suburbs.

While the above analysis focuses on Cuyahoga County, this is a statewide issue. Hamilton and Franklin counties will eventually build out like Cuyahoga and face the same challenges. The unprecedented situation calls for all levels of government - including the state - to engage jointly in determining policy and program initiatives that will secure the future of Ohio's counties as they reach build-out.

These trends of the real estate market, coupled with exclusionary zoning practices that allow little affordable housing to be built in new suburbs, isolate the poor and minorities in older urban areas. Using a dissimilarity index to measure the relative segregation of poor persons, David Rusk recently found that economic segregation is rising steadily throughout Ohio. In fact, Greater Cleveland was the nation's third most economically segregated region in 1990 (as well as the fifth most racially segregated). Schools in Ohio's metro areas are also more economically segregated than those of other states.18

The issues of urban sprawl, racial segregation, and concentrated poverty - also refered to as "metropolitan development patterns," "socioeconomic polarization," and "fiscal disparities" - are threatening the future prospects of metropolitan areas throughout Ohio. A study by the Metropolitan Area Research Corporation (MARC) on the Mahoning Valley area, for example, found a region highly segregrated by race and class, troubling fiscal disparities between communities, and sprawling development patterns that consume land rapidly.19

MARC's recent study on the Cincinnati region found similar issues. The central city has one of the highest rates in the nation of people living in "extreme poverty" neighborhoods, and the urbanized area is spreading out five times faster that population growth. The conclusion: "Pronounced social separation, inequitable fiscal policies, and inefficient development patterns are threatening the long-term social and economic strength of the Greater Cincinnati region."20

Water resources

Sprawling development creates environmental problems on many fronts. But the most serious and intractable may be the impact on water resources. Sprawl-induced increases in air pollution and energy use (created, for instance, when people drive cars more miles) are to some extent subject to technological fixes (such as cleaner, more efficient cars running on fuel cells). But there seems to be no easy fix for development's impact on water quality and aquatic ecosystems.

Indeed, there is a direct relationship between land conversion and the degradation of water resources - a relationship based on how water runs off the land. A recent study on the effects of sprawl in coastal areas for the Pew Oceans Commission found that the science of watershed protection converges on a central point: When more than ten percent of the acreage of a watershed is covered in roads, parking lots, rooftops, and other impervious surfaces, the rivers and streams within the watershed become seriously degraded.21

With regard to water resources, the typical growth patterns in Ohio create the worst possible situation. Development has a high enough density to violate the ten-percent rule of impervious surfaces, but it has low enough density to sprawl over vast areas and maximize the amount of water resources impacted.

Statewide inventories of water resources by the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency confirm that development-related impacts are a growing problem. The 2000 inventory says, "The most rapidly increasing threats are those related to urban and suburban development, watershed-level modifications (e.g., wetland losses), and hydromodification. Increasing threats from nonpoint sources could erode gains made through point source abatement and result in a slowing in the rate of restoration."22

A regional water quality plan drafted recently by the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency echoes these concerns:

Population growth and the associated demands for newly constructed housing will result in the continued disturbance of undeveloped lands precisely in those watershed areas most vulnerable to these changes. The locations of new homes will influence many businesses to relocate to be closer to their employees or their customers. Land uses will continue to change from a predominantly rural character to urbanizing uses, and this will affect how water runs off the land surface or into the ground. The increase in urban runoff and other sources of nonpoint source pollution can degrade water quality, habitat for aquatic life and aquatic life itself. If these trends continue and no countervailing water quality management strategies are implemented regional water quality is expected to decline, reversing the gains of the last twenty years.23

Such trends raise serious questions about the future quality of Ohio's most important natural resource, Lake Erie. Since the original European settlement of the Ohio Lake Erie watershed, over 90 percent of the marshes have been filled or converted to some other uses. Over 78 percent of the entire Lake Erie watershed has been altered from its original state, leaving only 22 percent relatively intact as forest cover or wetlands. The state's Lake Erie Protection and Restoration Plan concludes:

The development of northern Ohio often occurred without fully understanding or anticipating the impact this development would have on the natural and social environment. Too often, our land use and development decisions have accelerated erosion and nonpoint pollution, urban sprawl, abandonment of central cities, congestion of streets and highways, the loss of natural habitat and farmland, and degraded the health and diversity of plant and animal communities.24

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Cuyahoga Bioregion
(216) 961-5020
Copyright 2002-2003

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