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State Still Sprawling

Census figures, population estimates indicate outer suburbs are still absorbing state's growth

Hartford Courant editorial

July 07, 2010

Political leaders have been warning us for three decades that we need to end our addiction to foreign oil. The disaster in the Gulf of Mexico has brought another, more urgent round of warnings. So far, in Connecticut at least, it's all talk. That is the clear message from the latest the U.S. Census data.

One of the main drivers of energy use is sprawl low-density, auto-dependent settlement patterns that encourage, or often require, more gas and more driving to get to work, shopping or recreational venues. In the postwar period, Connecticut has undergone relentless sprawl, as cities have emptied and once-small farm or factory towns have filled with strip malls and subdivisions. Though it took decades, officials began to see a downside to sprawl energy waste, increased air and water pollution, loss of farms and other open space, abandonment of urban infrastructure, social isolation. In the past decade, a few forward-looking legislators and state commissioners have helped create a nascent smart-growth program. The data suggests the program has not yet taken hold.

According to census estimates for the period July 2007 to July 2009, nearly all the fastest growing communities are outer-ring suburban towns as has been the case for decades. The fastest growing town in this period was East Windsor, whose population increased 4.14 percent.

Why East Windsor? In a word, land. The 27-square-mile rural community sits between Enfield and South Windsor, which are much more built up. East Windsor still has more than 200 farms, but the pressure to develop them was so strong that the town declared a moratorium on new residential construction in 2006 when applications for more than 700 new dwelling units were in the pipeline.

Some of the new construction is "active adult" housing. Towns love housing for people over the age of 55, because it means property-tax revenues without school expenses. As a result, this market sector was booming until the recession hit, and there are hundreds of "active adult" complexes across the state, most of them adding to sprawl. But while keeping seniors in the state is good for the economy, the boom in this sector has done nothing to address the shortage of housing for young people, which is one of the factors that causes so many 25- to 34-year-olds to leave the state. East Windsor capped its over-55 construction at about 300 units; some towns are simply taking what they can get.

The recession that began in 2008 greatly slowed applications for new construction. East Windsor town planner Laurie Whitten says the town is changing its farm regulations to encourage farmers to stay in business something other towns should consider.

Whether relying on active adult housing or more traditional subdivisions, towns such as Ellington, Somers, Oxford, Ridgefield and East Lyme grew while Hartford and New Haven both shrank slightly during the three-year period. Stamford was the only large city on the fastest-growing municipality list, ably taking advantage of its proximity to New York. But most of the rest were smaller communities with room to grow. And where there is room to grow, the state is still chewing up farms and fields, increasing pollution and energy use and creating the need for more infrastructure. The state Council on Environmental Quality estimates that Connecticut is losing about 1,800 acres of agricultural fields each year (some other estimates are higher) and has said that sprawl is the state's biggest environmental challenge.

This is not the way things ought to be going. The era of cheap and easy oil is coming to an end. We need to repopulate city and town centers and serve them with transit. Some of the state's smart-growth laws are too new to have had much effect, but we need to keep pushing. If the census figures for the next three years don't begin to show a significant shift, this state will be in trouble.

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.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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