The real question is how do we maintain farmland and open space while accommodating this growth?
In the world of real estate development, we know that the higher the density that is allowed, the less farmland is needed to build the same number of houses. Over a 10- or 20-year period, we can save thousands of acres from development.
If Delaware's population increase over 10 years is expected to be 50,000, and the average household size is 2.5 according to the Census Bureau, that means Delaware will add 20,000 new households over those years. If we have zoning codes that permit an average density of one unit an acre, then we will need 20,000 acres for those 20,000 new homes to be constructed.
However, if we increase permitted densities, the amount of land needed falls dramatically. By increasing average density to two units an acre, we've just saved 10,000 acres from development over a 10-year period. If we increase the density to four units an acre, we would only need approximately 5,000 acres for the same increase in population, and we could save approximately 15,000 acres from development.
At two-acre minimum lot sizes (the size prevalent in many developments not served by sewers), the average density would be only one-half a unit an acre or less depending on the average lot size, meaning that at least 40,000 acres would be required for the same 20,000 new homes.
The point should be obvious: Higher densities result in less land being developed. The best way we can save farmland in the long run is to allow greater density of development on the farms being developed now.
On a project-by-project basis, it's easy for residents to argue for smaller developments and less dense projects. But in the aggregate, we are cutting off our nose to spite our face. Less density on individual projects simply means more developments, more sprawl and more loss of open land.
Higher-density has other advantages as well. Among other things, it makes public transit more practical, allows better economies of scale for traffic and other infrastructure improvements and keeps housing more affordable.
This same logic applies to commercial, office and industrial development. With more restrictive zoning codes now in vogue, non-residential uses are more limited in their density as well. For example, beyond traditional setback requirements, non-residential projects must provide open space as part of every project. Typically this space consists of patches and strips of grass and shrubs surrounding the buildings or parking lots. Certainly, minimal landscaping is needed, but why require relatively large strips of open space surrounding businesses? These areas can't be used by the public and merely cause businesses to need more land for the same number of stores and offices.
The more businesses spread out, the more customers and employees have to drive. Higher-density commercial development results not only in less land being used for more stores and businesses, but people don’t need to drive as much.
Some people express concern that higher densities result in more crowded development but no savings in land; that we'll still run out of open space. This fear is no reason to prohibit higher-density development now. It just means that density is only one component in good land planning and preservation.
Delaware's farmland preservation program is also important and has been fairly successful. We also need to purchase land for parks and open space. Transfer of development rights is another tool.
But any serious effort to save land must begin with density, density, density.
Richard Forsten is a land use and commercial real estate attorney with the Wilmington office of Klett Rooney Lieber & Schorling, and he is on the Board of Directors of the Home Builders Association of Delaware.