On the far side of World War II, America commenced a revolution in land use. Between 1945 and 1960, something in the order of ten million single-family homes were constructed in suburban subdivisions on land at the urban fringe and in rural areas that was unincorporated prior to, if not after, its development. If counties had exercised stronger land use control over these areas, might our development patterns have turned out differently? What do we know of land use planning by counties, and what role did that legal development play in twentieth-century urban sprawl?
Our information about county land use planning is limited, but based on available research, this Essay argues that counties played an important role in passively enabling, if not actively courting, suburban development on greenfield (that is, undeveloped) sites. Counties were, in short, sprawl's shepherd. Other factors—like housing need, housing costs, consumer preferences, racial discrimination, lending practices, and government subsidization of mortgages and transportation networks—generated suburban development proposals, but the nature of county land use authority and engagement led those projects to seek rural pastures.
This Essay uses the occasion of the one-hundredth anniversary of the California Law Review to consider these questions. It uses a 1938 article published in the journal to glimpse early ideas on rural and county land use control and to provide an initial assessment of how far county land use planning has come, or failed to come, in the decades since.