The American dream is to own a house in the country, where one can escape from the crowds and enjoy peace and quiet. This dream was exploited by large lot-sales companies that converted raw land into marketable homesites. These sprawling, low-density developments often have been ill-conceived and are now “sleeping giants of growth management” Stroud 1995. In Florida and elsewhere, the problem of platted lands has reached such alarming proportions that airplane passengers sometimes gasp when they see vacant lots as far as the eye can see. This article surveys the literature on platted lands, explores possible planning techniques, and offers a case study of a novel solution recently employed in Lehigh Acres, Florida.
Platted subdivisions are surprisingly common, but they are not evenly distributed throughout the country. A few major clusters are located in Expedited Land Sales in Florida, the desert Southwest, the Pocono Mountains of northeastern Pennsylvania, and several counties near Austin and Houston, Texas. They are often large, occupying a significant share of the land area in their respective states (see Figure 1). Some have been in existence for decades, and their out-of-state owners have become the dominant force in local government decision making. In addition, they have grown rapidly and now represent the largest and fastest-growing communities in their regions, despite the lack of infrastructure and services they offer residents.
Most of the platted lands were approved in the 1950s and 1960s, when few regulations existed. They are often ill-conceived, with lots crowded together and without adequate connections to roads, water and sewer systems, schools, and jobs. Consequently, they are inundating the local tax base and overwhelming public services. They are also an environmental hazard and a financial liability.
Despite their enormity, these problems have received little attention in the literature. Only a few books have been published on the subject, and in-house reports for state and local governments are rare. A few of these reports explored possible solutions, but none has been implemented by the planning system.
The reasons for this neglect are complex. Some planners have argued that platted land is not a pressing concern because it will eventually be developed, but they fail to take into account the potential economic and social costs of these poorly planned subdivisions, and they underestimate the complexity of the problems involved (Stroud 1985). In addition, some officials fear that they may be required to compensate thousands of property owners for devaluing the value of their vacant lots if they attempt to resolve the problems of a platted development.
However, it is possible to expedite the process of selling land in a platted community. Increasing the number of potential buyers, adding value to the parcel through innovative merchant land strategies, and working with a knowledgeable real estate agent can all help speed up the sale. It still takes a longer time to sell off-grid land than infill lots in the city, but this can be lessened by being transparent with prospective buyers, addressing concerns upfront, and ensuring that there is a reasonable supply of financing options available.