Don Pesci: The anti-sprawl boomerang

  VERNON, Conn.

Not only does every regulation impose additional costs on businesses, excessive regulation also unwittingly embraces unintended consequences that may be fatal to the best laid plans of those who oppose urban sprawl -- the movement of residential and business operations from urban areas to the suburban frontier.

This “Big Bang” movement has been occurring ever since the protective walls of castles disappeared centuries ago.

For anti-sprawlists in Connecticut, many of whom are environmentalists, local farms are essential to a movement that seeks to nudge businesses back into cities; the more farms there are in the hinterlands, the less land will be available for “exploitation” by businesses and home-construction companies. Environmentalists do not generally object heatedly to “urban sprawl.”

Onerous federal regulations on farms have now invaded Connecticut’s environmental Eden.

Connecticut farmers have offered multiple objections to new regulations co-sponsored by 3rd District U.S. Rep.  Rosa DeLauro. Mrs. DeLauro’s district, largely urban, has suffered a crippling reduction in U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) subsidies during the last six years. Federal subsidies from 2009-2010 amounted to about a million dollars per year; during 2012, the subsidies for the district dropped precipitously to $157,039.

At the same time, the federal government has a huge deficit; the Obama years alone have added $6.061 trillion to the national debt, which surpassed $18.1 trillion last January. The usual cowardly detours that let legislators  avoid painful spending cuts to balance budgets – massive borrowing, budget shape-shifting and inflating the money supply – are considered politically inadvisable, and so the federal government has begun to trim subsidies; which is to say, the Feds are now backpedaling on their promissory notes to states. Nothing unusual there: In the bust and boom economy, all Americans have become American Indians; the promises of Washington to regulatory victims have been repeatedly and notoriously violated.

The new farming regulations, piled on top of others, farmers say, are costly and complex; but then what federal regulatory instruments are not costly and complex, a virtual playpen for lawyers and tax attorneys? The Obamacare bill runs to thousands of pages; Dodd-Frank financial regulations are not much shorter, and the regulatory apparat in Washington is equally complex and expensive.

Washington specializes in growing the administrative apparat and complex legislation that may be understood only by accountants and attorneys for large corporations that can afford to hire both to avoid taxes and regulations. It is small enterprises – such as farmers -- that feel the sharp edge of the regulatory and tax axe.

Farmers in Connecticut want to be able to grow and offer their produce at competitive prices. Because the profit margin in farming is so small, any additional costs are potential straws that certainly will break the camel’s back and reduce farmers’ very narrow profit margin – or, worse, force them to sell their land to developers, who then may sell the farmland to businesses hoping to cut costs by moving from urban to suburban centers. Result: further suburban sprawl occasioning tons of editorials bemoaning the reduction of “Smart Development.” Connecticut is now witnessing a regulatory snake swallowing its own tail.

One small example may serve for many. The Lydall Farm stand on Route 44 in Coventry has  a handmade sign that says the stand has been in business since 1926, three years before the start of the Great Depression. But this year will be the stand’s last stand. Why? The profit margin is too small and new regulations are far too costly.

So complex are new environmental-protection regulations that nearly any small farmer may now be put out of business by nearly any lawsuit waving bureaucrat or, worse, any consumer protection U.S. Senator (cf. Blumenthal, Dick). Then too, the more time and money small farmers spend complying with byzantine regulations, the less time and money is available to make the crops come out of the ground.

Why not sell the ground?

Though Mrs. DeLauro is chairwoman of the House Agriculture-FDA Appropriations Subcommittee, this Catch 22 may be low on her list of things to worry about. The constituents whom Mrs. DeLauro relies upon to re-elect her to a 12th  term in Congress are, many of them, urbanites who may think  that food is grown in the parking lots of the grocery stores where they buy their lettuce and peaches. These are the nephews and cousins of the magic thinkers who suppose that the nation’s wealth is produced by a golden tree the leaves of which can be cashed in to pay the salaries of the army of bureaucrats pushing farmland into the greedy hands of developers responsible for urban sprawl.

Connecticut Farmers in Mrs. DeLauro’s District keenly feeling the sting of reduced subsidies and excessive regulations know better. But the farmers in Ms. DeLauro’s District who would be willing to vote against pro-suburban sprawlists are far outnumbered by urban dwellers who have not thought about the plight of Connecticut’s small farmers since the Great Depression.

Don Pesci ( is a political writer based in Vernon, Conn.