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Stalling Sprawl

State Must Take Leadership Role In Shaping Development

July 9, 2006

Connecticut today looks a lot like Maryland and New Jersey did when we took office in our respective states: a state with a modest endowment of land that is being depleted quickly by rapid, often poorly conceived development.

The goal, of course, is not to try to stop growth and development - a cure worse than the disease - but to harness and shape it so that communities get better as they grow, and so that the state's rural and natural legacy can be passed to future generations. From experience, we know that this cannot be accomplished in any lasting way unless the state government plays a major part (and that is doubly true in a state without counties.) And it certainly helps if the governor makes it a personal priority.

Without pretending to be experts on Connecticut, we are willing to bet that much of the misplaced development is aided and abetted, and even subsidized, by state policies and practices, much as they were in our home states.

It was certainly true in Maryland, where we were funding infrastructure and school construction in areas where neither the locality nor the state had planned for development.

In 1997, Maryland passed a Smart Growth Act. The state began to remove subsidies for sprawl and instead steer funds toward communities that had planned to absorb growth in a smaller, better-planned footprint. Implementing it was hard work, but it is amazing what money can do to focus the mind.

In New Jersey, we faced a double whammy, with much of our dwindling open space disappearing even as our cities struggled to redevelop.

Reversing this took actions large and small. First, the voters committed to preserving 40 percent of the state for posterity, backing it with more than $1 billion to acquire open space and preserve farmland and historic assets. Then we took steps to make it easier to redevelop in existing areas, reclaim industrial brownfields and adapt older buildings for re-use.

These moves weren't always easy, but when we could demonstrate the benefits for ordinary citizens - holding down property tax bills, creating alternatives to traffic congestion, creating healthy communities, and expanding recreational and other opportunities - they had strong bipartisan support.

The good news is that many other states are adopting these approaches and creating new ones. But change doesn't happen overnight. It is critical that there be three elements to ensure continuity beyond the current governor.

First, there must be a statewide framework adopted in law. A governor can take many steps administratively, but a successor - as we know from personal experience - may not have the same priorities. It is important that a smart planning and investment framework be codified.

It is also crucial that there be a non-governmental advocacy infrastructure to keep watch. Special-interest lobbying, or even mere inattention, can erode the commitment to smarter growth unless credible organizations are there to sustain it. Connecticut is fortunate to have 1,000 Friends of Connecticut, whose counterparts in Maryland, New Jersey and many other states are crucial to continued progress.

Finally, there must be an ongoing commitment to communication with the public. These issues are complicated. Sprawl- producing inter-relationships aren't always apparent. It is vital that governments and nonprofit groups invest in an ongoing public discussion of the issues. This newspaper is making a tremendous start on that.

Specifically, the state's leadership would do well to think through these four goals:

Ensuring that planning happens, and that it happens with meaningful input from citizens. There needs to be a state agency that is accountable for planning, and there should be someone in the governor's cabinet who is accountable for coordinating state agencies overseeing transportation, environment, housing and the like.

That person should report regularly to the governor, the legislature and the public on progress, or the lack of it.

Connecting transportation and land use. You can spend all the money in the world on transportation infrastructure, whether on roads or rails, but that money will be wasted if it is not coordinated with the pace and form of development. If you build communities so every activity requires a long car trip, no amount of pavement will cure congestion.

At the same time, there is no point in building a rail system if destinations are not clustered at stations. Remember, if you design communities for automobiles, you get more automobiles. If you design them for people, you get walkable, livable communities.

Working with employers and businesses. State governments want economic development, and employers want to know that workers can find housing and transportation close to jobs. State policies can work to the benefit of both.

For example, Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich just signed a bill that expands tax incentives for companies that locate within easy reach of affordable workforce housing or public transit. Communities with the strongest sense of place are those that are most competitive in today's knowledge-based economy.

Making sure tax policies are working for, and not against, community and state goals. Too often, competition among local governments for commercial taxpayers leads to a development-at-any-cost attitude, or causes localities to use zoning to exclude all but the largest and most expensive housing. States in which local governments are not overly reliant on property tax revenues have better options and greater leverage in coordinating development and insisting on a high quality of life.

Based on what we've seen, Connecticut has the elements necessary to become a national model for innovations in guiding growth for the betterment of the state's people.

All that is needed is public, private and community leadership to put it in motion.

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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