"Sprawl doesn't pay for itself," said Strong, the economist who authored the study's economic analysis. "And that deficit will echo through the entire array of city services. Lower response time from police, dirtier streets, more potholes."
One of the fastest-growing regions in the country, the Central Valley has nearly doubled its population in the past 20 years. Cities have accommodated that growth with about four housing units per acre. By increasing this housing density to seven units per acre, the study found, the effects of sprawl could be cut in half.
"Seven units per acre is not an unreasonable goal," said Eric Vink, who heads the Davis office of the Farmland Trust. "With that minor change, the loss of farmland is cut in half. And instead of budget deficits, the cities will actually have a small budget surplus."
Vink called for a task force of farmers, developers, public officials, environmentalists and the general public to promote ways to achieve more compact growth.
He said public officials and planners had to stop treating farmland as an interim land use. The most important farmland in the valley needs to be set aside as an agricultural reserve where growth is prohibited, he said.
"Cities should be saying, 'Here are the areas where we grow houses and here are the areas where we want to reserve for growing food,' " he said.