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New Day For Smart Growth

LEGISLATIVE PACKAGE New laws would encourage regional cooperation, saving money and land

Hartford Courant Editorial

January 27, 2009

Progress, the late poet Ogden Nash observed, might have been all right once, but it has gone on too long. That might describe the state's postwar rush to suburbia.

Stoked by VA mortgages and cheap cars and gas, development marched outward. Cities lost population as former villages boomed. But what boomed was mostly sprawl ill-planned, low-density, auto-dependent, single-family residential or strip mall construction on what had been forest or farmland.

Only belatedly did the citizenry realize that progress has a cost, in addition to infrastructure and services expenses, air and water pollution, energy use and social isolation. It diminishes the open lands that support agriculture, water supplies, wildlife habitat and the traditional visual character of the Connecticut countryside.

Corralling Sprawl

In the past few years, the General Assembly has passed several bills to discourage sprawl. These have provided some funding as well as plans and studies. Sweeping legislation proposed on Monday would vastly increase the state's efforts to grow more compactly and efficiently.

The legislative package is the result of a year's work by the bipartisan, public/private Smart Growth Working Group assembled by state Rep. Brendan Sharkey, D- Hamden. The proposed laws place a heavy emphasis on regional planning and cooperation. Mr. Sharkey and his colleagues believe that regionalism and other smart-growth measures will shrink the overall cost of government and make the state more competitive.

This is a threshold moment for the state's smart-growth movement. If we really believe that sprawl is damaging the economy as well as the scenery, the bills should pass.

A core problem with the present system is that it almost requires sprawl. Towns have to pay for education and other services, and virtually the only way they can raise revenue is the property tax. So the incentive is to develop all available land, whether the development is appropriate or not.

Sharing Revenue

Under the new proposal, towns would voluntarily form economic development regions, which would entitle them to federal funds. The towns would share the revenue from new commercial development rather than waste time competing with one another. They would engage in regional collective bargaining, land-use planning, purchasing and other activities.

As an incentive, the state would give the towns a percentage, perhaps 1 percent, of the sales tax collected in the region (though this might take a year or two to implement).

The proposals also include such things as model smart-growth zoning regulations (most local zoning codes encourage sprawl), Geographic Information System mapping and streamlining the state's brownfield remediation program.

In all, it is the most comprehensive approach to reversing sprawl that's yet been presented in this state. But note: Connecticut has been behind the curve on smart growth; many of these measures have been used successfully elsewhere. For example, Minneapolis and its suburbs have had a revenue-sharing system in place since the 1970s, and it's worked well.

Still, it won't be easy to overcome years of distrust between towns and the state. The way out of that hole is to view state and local governments as one government, Mr. Sharkey said, and not as competing forces.

With local budgets strained and the state heading for a major deficit, it is essential to reduce the cost of government. If we the people can make government more efficient, and save farms, reduce car trips and clean the air in the bargain, we should.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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