WASHINGTON -- "Buy land," humorist Will Rogers once said. "They aren't making any more of it."
Except for Hawaii -- where active volcanoes create more land mass as molten lava spills into the ocean and cools -- Rogers was on the money. But the country isn't losing land at nearly the rate some anti-growth, anti-development factions would have us believe, either.
About 75 percent of the nation's 3.5 million square miles falls into one of three land-use categories -- cropland, grazing land and forest land. All other uses make up the other 25 percent. Moreover, land held for crops and forests has increased dramatically over the last 100 years, growing by millions of acres.
It's also true that the percentage of Americans living in the suburbs has more than doubled in the last 50 years, and that the vast majority of the increase has come at the expense of rural areas.
But according to Smart Growth: A Resource for Realtors; The Issues, the Economics, and the Debate, a new study by the National Association of Realtors which is not yet online, the number of acres taken by rural uses has trailed that taken for other land use categories.
Between 1945 and 1992, ground used for residential, commercial and government-related development increased by nearly 300 percent, from 15 million acres to 58.8 million. During that same period, though, land held for parks and wildlife increased by more than 900 percent, from 22.6 million acres to 228.9 million.
Of course, it can be argued that setting aside land for public and open spaces is necessary to stop "greedy" land barons, builders and developers. But the NAR study, which looked at the impact of land use trends on real estate development, found that residential development "has not impinged" on the nation's land mass.
"Concerns over the loss of open space, and farmland to insure an ample food supply, are exaggerated," the study concluded. "There is plenty of land in the United States to meet the demand for open space, farmland, commercial and residential needs for years to come."
Consider these points:
- Developed and urban land continues to account for but a small fraction of available land. Federal holdings and conservation of land remains high and has been trending upward. The Federal Bureau of Land Management alone holds four times the amount of ground used for urban purposes.
- Between 1992 and 1997, the amount of farmland declined by just over 3 percent.
Only two states, Utah and New Mexico, have more farmland now than they ever have, and seven others have the same amount at the did in '92. The rest lost farmland. But this masks the fact that residential development does not always lead to the loss of farms.
According to the NAR study, the states which have the fastest growing populations are the very same ones which are losing farmland at a slower rate than those experiencing little or no population growth.
- Newly-constructed homes consumed almost 658,000 acres in 1999, which amounts to about 3/100ths of 1 percent of the country's land mass. At that rate, which is one of the highest in history, NAR estimates it would take what, 600,000 years, to cover the countryside with single-family houses.
- Production home builders don't use as much land per house as custom builders who build one-of-a-kind houses for clients or people who build their own homes. Owner-built homes in 1999 had a median lot of size of slightly more than an acre (45,759 square feet), more than five times as large as the median size lot (9,000 square feet) for homes built on speculation.