Property Tax Reform and Smart Growth

Connecting Some of the Dots
Richard W. England, January 1, 2004

It is undeniable that land use change in the United States has been occurring at a rapid rate. Between 1982 and 1997 alone, developed land increased nationwide by 25 million acres, or 34 percent. Population growth certainly helped to fuel this increase in settled land area, as the U.S. resident population grew by 15.6 percent during the same period. From these two trends, it follows that the average population density of developed areas has declined during the late twentieth century: the average number of residents per developed acre fell by 13.6 percent nationwide. This declining density of settled areas is one indicator that “sprawl” has been unfolding across the U.S.

Concerns about Sprawl

Rapid conversion of forests, farms and wetlands to residential, commercial and industrial uses has provoked growing concern among elected officials and voters in many states. In 1999, the National Governors’ Association adopted a statement of principles on better land use that called for preservation of open space and encouragement of growth in already developed portions of the landscape.

The deepening concern for containing sprawl and promoting denser development has been expressed repeatedly at the state and local levels of government. The recent report of the Connecticut Blue Ribbon Commission on Property Taxation and Smart Growth, for example, has explicitly linked “loss of farms, forest and open space . . . [to] decline of and flight from urban areas, along with economic and racial segregation” (State of Connecticut 2003). In New Hampshire during the spring of 2003, a dozen small towns in that politically conservative state authorized million-dollar bond issues to finance conservation of rural lands threatened by metropolitan growth radiating from Boston.

Urban economists have often noted that we should expect the areas of metropolitan regions to expand along with growth of population and income per capita, but this readiness of land markets to accommodate a larger and more affluent population is not the entire story. Jan K. Brueckner and Hyun-A Kim, for example, have pointed out that the territorial expansion of metropolitan regions during recent decades has probably been excessive from a social efficiency point of view. One reason is the failure of developers to account for the loss of amenity values as development consumes open spaces. (Ecological economists would describe this loss as depreciation of natural capital.) Another reason is the failure of local governments to charge developers for the full cost of public infrastructure investments necessitated by metropolitan expansion. Other contributing factors are mortgage interest subsidies under the federal income tax and a failure to price congestion externalities on the roadways linking the metropolitan center to its fringe communities.

There may be other reasons for believing that metropolitan regions have expanded excessively in the U.S. since World War II. First, federal and state grant formulas sometimes reward towns and cities for adopting low-density zoning rules. An example is state reimbursement of pupil busing costs, a subsidy that encourages local school boards to ignore the land use implications of their school siting decisions. Second, several rounds of federal tax cuts since the 1980s have increased the disposable incomes of already affluent households and fueled a status competition favoring construction of ever larger homes on ever larger residential lots.

Tax Policy Tools for Smart Growth

Whatever the exact set of reasons for metropolitan sprawl, state and local policy makers have been scrambling to find policy tools with which to promote compact development. More than a generation ago, nearly all states adopted use-value assessment of rural lands in an effort to protect agricultural lands and other kinds of open space from development. When a rural parcel is enrolled in a use-value assessment program, it is treated for purposes of property taxation as though it were going to remain undeveloped in perpetuity. This legal fiction conveys a substantial tax benefit to rural landowners on the metropolitan fringe because their parcels have far greater market value than assessed value. Under the law, property assessors are required to ignore the development potential of undeveloped parcels enrolled in use-value assessment programs.

Theoretical research by Robert D. Mohr and this author (2003) has found that use-value property assessment, if properly designed, can postpone land use change and thereby provide a window of opportunity for local governments and conservation groups to buy development rights before rural lands are lost to metropolitan growth. However, in 15 states (including Arizona, Florida and New Mexico), the private decision to develop a rural parcel that has enjoyed use-value assessment results in no financial penalty at all to the owner. Hence, the tax incentive to postpone development is very weak. Only in those states (such as Connecticut and Rhode Island) that impose stiff development penalties if a parcel has been enrolled in the use-value assessment program for less than a decade is there a fairly strong incentive to postpone development despite escalating urban land rents. Perhaps it is time for state governments to review their use-value assessment programs to see if they actually postpone development of rural lands. If not, reform of use-value assessment statutes is in order.

Another way to promote compact metropolitan development would be to permit city governments to adopt split-rate property taxation. Under this type of property tax reform, a city can lower the tax rate on buildings and other capital improvements and still maintain the level of municipal services by raising the tax rate on land values. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has had this form of property taxation since 1913. Pittsburgh and Scranton have been the pioneers in tax reform, but by 1995, some 15 cities in the Keystone State had adopted two-rate property taxation. Although the evidence is circumstantial, Wallace Oates and Robert Schwab (1997) have tentatively concluded that lowering the tax rate on building values relative to land values helped to spur downtown commercial construction in Pittsburgh during the 1980s, despite the sharp decline of the city’s steel industry.

A Case Study of New Hampshire

As the fastest-growing state in the Northeast, New Hampshire is witnessing the rapid transformation of its traditional landscape of forests, farms and villages. Between 1982 and 1997, the developed area in the state increased by 210,000 acres, a 55 percent increase, although the population increased only about 26 percent (England 2002). To date, policy makers have paid little attention to the impact of the state’s high property taxes on these trends.

Using a regional econometric model to perform tax reform simulations, I have explored a revenue-neutral shift toward land value taxation in the state. In one study, the statewide property tax (which raised $460 million in 1999) is hypothetically replaced by a pure land value tax yielding an equal amount of state tax revenue. This policy simulation suggests that gross state product, employment and residential construction in the Granite State all would receive a boost from this type of tax reform. The boost to the state’s economic development would be long lasting, not transitory. However, because net migration into the state would receive a strong stimulus, this statewide approach to property tax reform would not serve to deter sprawl (England 2003b).

In a companion study, I simulated a shift to two-rate property taxation in New Hampshire’s largest city, Manchester, and in the economically depressed mill town of Berlin (England 2003a). In both cities, local employment, output and construction would receive a persistent boost following reform of the property tax. This stimulus to urban economic activity also would help to restrain the migration of households and businesses to surrounding rural areas.

If we want to slow down the development of rural lands, then we need to promote employment opportunities and healthy neighborhoods in already settled urban areas. A shift to two-rate property taxation by city governments could help to spark urban revitalization and thereby protect undeveloped lands on the metropolitan fringe. However, even though a shift to two-rate property taxation would promote investment and reinvestment in urban areas, this type of tax reform is likely to confront skepticism and even political opposition. Because industrial and commercial properties frequently have a higher ratio of building value to land value than do residential properties, raising the tax rate on land values in order to pay for a rate cut on capital improvements could have a regressive impact on the distribution of property tax payments. The owners of office buildings and electric power plants, for example, might enjoy lower tax bills while many homeowners might find increased tax bills after implementation of split-rate taxation.

My present research as a David C. Lincoln Fellow aims to see whether this potentially regressive impact of shifting to two-rate property taxation can be avoided, thereby undercutting potential voter opposition. Figure 1 demonstrates that the combination of a generous credit with two tax rates could make a “typical” homeowner a supporter of property tax reform.

Analysis of property tax data for three New Hampshire cities suggests that the introduction of split-rate taxation would indeed be acceptable to many homeowners if it were accompanied by a uniform tax credit on each annual tax bill. One of these communities is Dover, a small but growing city with abundant undeveloped land. In 2002, the total property tax rate was 1.89 percent of market value. Applied equally to land and building values totaling $2.03 billion, this single rate raised $26 million for municipal services and local public schools, with additional revenues raised for county and state purposes.

If the City of Dover had cut the tax rate on buildings by $2 per thousand dollars of assessed valuation and offered a (maximum) credit of $1,000 on each tax bill, then it would have needed to raise the tax rate on assessed land values by roughly $18 per thousand in order to maintain the level of municipal and local school spending during 2002. That particular tax reform would have lowered the annual property tax payment of most owners of single-family homes and residential condos in the city, especially those with relatively modest values. Because of the credit, even owners of inexpensive residential lots would have gained from the tax reform. Many owners of apartment complexes, large commercial properties and extensive tracts of vacant land, however, would have paid more local taxes after the shift to two-rate taxation and a uniform credit applied to each tax bill.


More than a century ago, Henry George advocated taxation of land value in the name of social equity. Contemporary economists have more often advocated land value taxation as an efficiency-enhancing policy favoring economic development. My own research suggests that taxing land values more heavily than building and improvement values could foster urban revitalization and help to protect undeveloped land at the same time. However, unless the design of property tax reform takes distributional impacts explicitly into account, George’s concern for social equity is unlikely to be served.

Richard W. England is professor of economics and natural resources and director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of New Hampshire. He has held a David C. Lincoln Fellowship in Land Value Taxation for three years and will be a visiting fellow at the Institute during 2004.


Brueckner, Jan K. and Hyun-A Kim. 2003. Urban Sprawl and the Property Tax. International Tax and Public Finance 10: 5–23.

England, Richard W. 2002. Perspective: A New England Approach to Preserving Open Space. Regional Review, Federal Reserve Bank of Boston 12(1): 2–5.

———.2003a. Land Value Taxation and Local Economic Development: Results of a Simulation Study. State Tax Notes, 22 April: 323–327.

———.2003b. State and Local Impacts of a Revenue-Neutral Shift from a Uniform Property to a Land Value Tax: Results of a Simulation Study. Land Economics, February: 38–43.

England, Richard W. and Robert D. Mohr. 2003. Land Development and Current Use Assessment: A Theoretical Note. Agricultural and Resource Economics Review, April: 46–52.

Oates, Wallace E. and Robert M. Schwab. 1997. The Impact of Urban Land Taxation: The Pittsburgh Experience. National Tax Journal 50(1): 1–21.

State of Connecticut. 2003. Report of Blue Ribbon Commission on Property Tax Burdens and Smart Growth Incentives.