Urban & Rural Sprawl

We’ve all heard the terms “urban sprawl” and “rural sprawl” in the context of poor land use planning, but what exactly does that mean and how would sprawl impact our region? The Cornell University Community and Regional Development Institute describes sprawl as

“A pattern of low-density, often unsightly, automobile dependent development that has been a common form of growth outside of urban areas since at least World War II.

Framed in terms other than development, sprawl refers in large part to the decentralization of human occupancy. That is, communities are requiring more dispersed, and simply more, land and space per person to provide homes, workplaces, shopping locations and recreation spaces. Sprawl frequently occurs where robust population growth occurs outside of urban areas, but it also accompanies settlement outside of existing cities and villages even in regions with little overall growth or even declining population.”

Rural Sprawl
Photo from USDA

In the Lake Tahoe area, the proposed Martis Valley West development is a perfect example of sprawl. Martis Valley West would be situated on undeveloped acreage in steep, pristine forested land that is not adjacent to any existing development. All infrastructure – roads, power, water, etc – will need to be built. Sprawl costs the U.S. economy roughly $600 billion dollars a year in direct costs related to inefficient land usage and car dependency, with another $400 billion in indirect costs due to traffic congestion, pollution and other factors.

Rural sprawl has a major ecological impact, especially in the West. According to the Natural Resource Ecology Lab and Dept. of Recreation & Tourism at Colorado State University, development threatens biodiversity through loss of habitat, fragmentation of habitat and changes to ecological processes, like fire regimes. Studies have shown that native species decline and non-native species increase with housing density.

Sprawl means more cars on the road and more vehicle miles travelled. Because rural development is necessarily further away from most jobs, services and alternative transportation options, residents of these developments are more reliant on car transportation. Martis Valley West would not be near any transit hubs, so there’s little way to mitigate the significant traffic impacts of travel to and from the location. More than 8,000 car trips could be added daily.

Tahoe Traffic
Photo from the San Francisco Chronicle

In the Tahoe-Truckee area, most rural sprawl would be in to the wildland-urban interface. According to the National Academy of Sciences, “The wildland-urban interface (WUI) is the area where houses and wildland vegetation meet or intermingle, and where wildfire problems are most pronounced.” The wildfire danger to human lives and property is highest in the WUI, because most human-caused fires start in the WUI and most fires are human caused. Fires are also more difficult to fight in the WUI and homes often burn there. Additionally, when development is present in the WUI, it is more difficult to allow natural fire regimes.

Martis Valley West would be located in a high-severity fire danger zone – steep, rugged and densely wooded terrain, making it an extremely dangerous place to be during a wildfire. During an emergency, it would take more than three hours just to get everyone out of the development, and those cars would be adding to the congestion on a critical escape route, SR 267.

Wildland Urban Interface
Photo from the US Fire Administration

According to the National Academy of Sciences, the WUI grew rapidly from 1990 to 2010 – faster than any other land cover categories. “Even though the WUI occupies less than one tenth of the land area of the conterminous United States, 43% of all new houses were built there.” As the climate warms and catastrophic wildfires increase, poorly planned rural sprawl into the WUI puts more and more lives in danger.

How can I help? While MAP achieved an important victory in 2018, our legal battle for Martis Valley West is not over! The Superior Court of Placer County found the environmental analysis of wildfire danger and evacuation to be inadequate, rescinding the project approvals and the certification of its Environmental Impact Report. While this ruling halts the bulldozers for now, the developers remain determined to move forward with this dangerous development that sprawls into the Wildland Urban Interface. You can support the next phase in our campaign against Martis Valley West in a few ways – sign our petition to Save Tahoe, donate to Save Tahoe, and share this information with your network!

Further Reading:
Defining Sprawl and Smart Growth (Cornell University Community and Regional Development Institute)
DEFINING AND MAPPING RURAL SPRAWL: EXAMPLES FROM THE NORTHWEST US (Colorado State University Natural Resource Ecology Lab and Dept. of Recreation & Tourism)
Rapid growth of the US wildland-urban interface raises wildfire risk (National Academy of Sciences)