Planners Discuss Sustainability Challenges For Municipalities

Daniel Herriges, founder of Strong Towns, during his presentation.

About 60 members of the Palm Beach County Planning Congress met Wednesday, June 26 at the Lake Worth Casino to discuss planning challenges for 2019, including the responsibility placed on taxpayers after developers build a community.

The theme was “City Stories,” told by various planners about their successes and failures in cities across the United States.

The meeting was organized by Francine Ramaglia, assistant manager of the Town of Loxahatchee Groves, who is also a Palm Beach County Planning Congress board member.

One of the speakers was Daniel Herriges, founder of Strong Towns, who spoke about the financial sustainability of towns as they build and rebuild.

“How do we build resilient and prosperous places?” asked Herriges, who has a master’s degree in urban and regional planning from the University of Minnesota.

Herriges cited one town of about 15,000 people in northern Minnesota in the area where he resides that was founded by lumberjacks in the 1870s that evolved from a community of mostly shacks to a prosperous town with permanent buildings and municipal infrastructure by 1904.

“There is a sewer system now on all the streets,” Herriges said. “The city grew more permanent and more established, denser and more prosperous little by little. It grew more prosperous by copying what has been done in other places. Cities always grow incrementally out and up in the center.”

Herriges said communities evolve if they have an economic reason to exist and more people move there.

“You didn’t have formalized city planning in the 1870s in northern Minnesota. You didn’t even have specialized occupations of civil engineers or transportation engineers,” Herriges said.

Fast forwarding to the present, he showed a slide of the same town, now with vacant storefronts in a largely abandoned downtown.

“This is familiar to people all over North America — hollowed out downtowns, buildings torn down for parking lots, disinvestment in what should be the center of our cities,” he said. “What happened, essentially, was an enormous experiment after World War II. I characterize this as an urban experiment that you have massive investment by capital builders on a huge scale. It was an entire neighborhood at a time, 5,000 residences at a time built to a finished state. All the infrastructure is there. We have big parks and schools up front, and it’s expected to not change.”

Most of those communities were built on decisions to be automobile oriented, Herriges said.

“What has happened is an anomaly in the infrastructure that we have the responsibility of maintaining,” Herriges said.

Switching to an example of an infrastructure study in Lafayette, La., Herriges said the municipality found that its infrastructure needs far exceeded the capability of the population to support needed improvements.

“An inventory of all their structure, their streets, their fire hydrants, their sewer pipes compared to their tax base that exists, here we have a population of Lafayette between 1949 and 2015… the number of sewer pipes per person there is now 10 times as much pipe in the ground in Lafayette and 21 times as many fire hydrants, and road mileage is a similar pattern spreading way out on a massive scale. Median household income has grown by 1.6 times in the same time period, and infrastructure obligations have grown tenfold or more,” Herriges said.

A municipality can pay for such encumbrances by taking out long-term debt for capital improvements, Herriges said, which results in higher taxes for the residents that ultimately are not sustainable.

“You now have a developer that can essentially pay for the infrastructure for the first life cycle, more often that’s what’s happening with low-rise suburban expansion,” Herriges said.

The second life cycle becomes more complicated, where the taxpayer must shoulder the burden of rebuilding the infrastructure, which results in repaying a debt whose time period often exceeds the life of the rebuilding project.

“The public is on the hook for that. The idea is, well, we’ve seen a bunch of robust economic growth, we have the tax base to pay for this,” Herriges said. “That assumption needs to be reexamined.”

Herriges cited municipalities that had their infrastructure rebuilt on a long-term debt that took 37 to 70 years to pay off, but the rebuilding projects seldom last that long.

“This happens over and over in our communities,” Herriges said, which results in massive tax increases. “This is something we call a Ponzi scheme — where each frontier of participants pays off the previous year until someone is left holding the bag.”

Herriges said the pattern of increasing maintenance obligations does not result in a sudden crisis, but an increasing demand for growth and commerce to pay the debt.

“It’s a familiar story,” he said. “Almost anywhere you go, people are saying you have to prioritize our maintenance. We have to prioritize. We have to triage. We don’t have the money to do all that. What that is reflecting is an underlying fiscal reality of not being productive enough to pay the bill.”

Herriges said average citizens do not feel included in plans that affect them, but they need to have a place at the planning table for communities to be ultimately successful.

Herriges cited Overtown in northern Miami, as an example of a municipality that grew without massive resources in the era of segregation. “This is not a wealthy community, but these buildings are attractive,” Herriges said. “This is a street that clearly has a lot of community activity, a lot of people on it, and for the black community in the South to build this and have a place that is theirs, uplifts the whole community.”

The Palm Beach County Planning Congress is composed of professionals actively involved and interested in the responsible growth and development of Palm Beach County and the surrounding region. Membership includes public and private sector professionals in the fields of urban planning, water resources, transportation, education, local, regional and state planning, architecture, growth management and environmental law, engineering, landscape architecture, real estate, health and human services. For more info., visit