Connecticut has reached a crucial stage — perhaps the crucial stage — in its push for responsible growth.
Responsible growth, sometimes called smart growth or sustainable development, involves directing public investment in ways that encourage the preservation of natural resources and discourage low-density sprawl development. States with smart-growth policies might, for example, make housing money available if the construction is in or near a town center or transit station, not in a field or forest.
The Responsible Growth Act passed last year by the General Assembly created a task force to identify criteria that would guide such state investments and also determine how land-use law and policies could be changed to augment smart growth.
The task force presented its report to Gov. M. Jodi Rell last week. In her budget message, Mrs. Rell sought funding for several proposals.
As expected, the guidelines focus on redevelopment — of brownfields, buildings and urban areas — rather than on demolition or new development in green areas. The report encourages more types of housing, concentrated near transit corridors and job centers. It calls for regional planning, for consistency between local, regional and state plans, and for the conservation and protection of water and other natural resources.
Most sprawl emanates from local zoning decisions, which are often based on outdated zoning codes. The task force recommends that model smart-growth zoning regulations be made available to the towns that want them.
Towns too often compete with one another for companies, because the winner gets the property tax revenue. The task force urges regions to share the burdens and benefits of development, to diminish wasteful competition.
Today, towns will plan major projects with little or no input from the surrounding towns, which often get the traffic. For example, the tiny town of Preston continues by itself to plan the major renovation of the former Norwich State Hospital property, though the project will affect all of southeastern Connecticut. The task force would involve regional planning agencies in "projects of regional significance."
Now comes the hard part. Most if not all of the steps recommended by the task force are smart and efficient ideas. But they involve change, and Connecticut stands second to none in its resistance to doing things differently. Someone in a position to effect change will have to take the lead.
Some of state government's best commissioners — Gina McCarthy of the Department of Environmental Protection, Joan McDonald of Economic and Community Development, Marie O'Brien of the Connecticut Development Authority and Philip Prelli of the Department of Agriculture — were the drivers of the task force. If they were to implement many of these changes administratively, we'd be on our way.
This is a defining moment. We can fake it and use responsible growth as marketing spin, or we can actually do business differently and save Connecticut's cities and countryside. Let's try the latter.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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