Group's Promotion Of Responsible Development Gains Political Momentum
October 13, 2008
1000 Friends of Connecticut was founded in 2005 to make responsible development one of the most important issues in state political campaigns.
The group, however, had a tepid beginning, holding just four candidate forums featuring "smart growth" as the main topic.
"The pieces hadn't all been pulled together. ... It was quieter, it was less jelled," 1000 Friends President Heidi Green said.
That has changed. This year, the nonprofit organization has 10 forums on its election schedule, and the focus on how development affects property taxes, suburban sprawl and other issues has become much more intense. Voters are focused on smart growth and becoming more aware that housing, education, transportation and commercial development do not work in a vacuum, officials of the organization say.
Smart growth promotes coordinated efforts among local and state governments to make all those aspects of everyday living more efficient and less costly. Smart growth also calls for compact development, using existing infrastructure, such as sewer lines, and accessibility to mass transit. Such development mixes uses, so people can live and work in the neighborhood, and it encourages pedestrian instead of vehicular traffic. Smart growth also encourages agricultural uses and preservation of open space.
Green said candidates' responses to questions in recent forums show they are developing a keen sense of the issue and residents are "turning out in droves" to talk to their local leaders about how they want to see their towns and regions developed.
"To some extent, 1000 Friends is riding a wave and the wave is moving, not because we're here, but because the need for more sustainable development policies is so apparent across the state. Our profile is higher now than it was two years ago, but I think it's because the issue is so important," Green said.
The topic has been percolating for the past few years among residents all over the state, especially along the shoreline and in the Farmington Valley. A forum 1000 Friends hosted in Branford last month attracted 100 residents. Another in Canton two weeks ago drew 10 candidates running for state legislative seats in West Hartford and the Farmington Valley.
In the past few years, Canton and Simsbury residents formed groups in opposition to "big box" developments proposed in their towns. Those developments were turned down, largely because of the local groups' grass-roots efforts.
And state legislators have taken notice. In March, Democratic State Rep. Brendan Sharkey of Hamden formed The Smart Growth Working Group, a bipartisan committee of the legislature, to put together a coordinated package of legislation for the 2009 session.
When towns compete with each other for economic development to grow their grand lists, Sharkey said, they lose the opportunity to work together to bring in sensible development.
Smart growth encourages sharing commercial property tax revenue. Three towns, for example, could agree that because a large shopping mall built in one town would affect traffic and other services in the entire region, they could work together on planning and approving the project, then share in the tax revenue when the mall was built.
"The governor is right when she points out that there is a real revolt that is brewing out there over the property tax problem. Any candidate for state office that does not recognize that gathering storm does so at their own peril. This is a positive and realistic approach to providing long-term reform to the property tax," Sharkey said.
Kevin Witkos, Canton's Republican state representative for the past six years and a state Senate candidate this year, said residents in his area have espoused good economic development for years, but that sentiment is starting to take root in the legislature.
"I've seen a lot of different campaign materials out there, and almost everybody mentions smart growth," Witkos said.
Kirsten Griebel, a member of Simsbury Homeowners Advocating Responsible Expansion, said that during the first municipal election after the group formed, most of the candidates running for the town's major boards refused to give an opinion on big-box development. But now, Griebel said, "I think there is a greater awareness of the appropriate vs. the inappropriate development. I see it everywhere."
Griebel is also chairwoman of Simsbury Citizens First, a political party that was formed last year based on the smart growth platform. Four of the party's candidates were elected to land-use boards in last year's municipal elections.
Lonnie Reed, a Democrat from Branford running unopposed in the 102nd House District, said smart growth issues are a key part of her campaign. Reed helped to organize last month's property tax reform summit that drew 100 people.
"[Smart growth] hits all the hot buttons in this town. It's something everybody deeply cares about. ... They care about smart economic development, and they're fearful of sprawl," Reed said.
Sharkey credits 1000 Friends of Connecticut and other groups for bringing smart growth and economic development issues to the forefront of this year's campaigns.
"These groups are helping to provide the impetus for candidates to be responsive. That will translate for those lucky enough to be elected in November, that will translate into real initiatives at the start of the session," he said.
Green agreed that smart growth's relevance will continue past Nov. 4.
"We are continuing to ramp up our organizing, and we'll continue that after the elections," she said.