Frustrated by years of relentless and poorly planned development, activists in East Hampton last fall challenged the status quo at the ballot box. They formed a third party, called the Chatham Party after an early name for the town. They won a majority of seats on the town council on a platform of smarter residential and commercial development, preservation of the town's rural character and protection of its natural environment.
Thus far the five Chatham council members are walking the walk. They've created a commission to protect the town's signature body of water, Lake Pocotopaug. They've passed ordinances to limit big-box development, create a design review board and discourage blight, and are acquiring open space.
The East Hampton experience is hardly unique. Across the state, citizens are beginning to appreciate the cost of sprawl development - more driving, more traffic and more fuel consumption, loss of farms and forests, air and water pollution, higher costs of services, isolation of the poor and elderly, limited housing choices - and are organizing to do something about it.
It's imperative that the incoming governor and legislative leaders get out in front of the nascent smart growth movement and nurture it with changes in state policy.
Because, as we cannot emphasize strongly enough, the work is not finished; it is just getting started. Compared with most other Northeast states, Connecticut is late to the game of halting sprawl. Farms and woodlands are still being bulldozed willy-nilly, roads are still being widened as traffic increases, urban areas are still challenged.
These trends are being challenged at the local level in towns across the state.
Canton: The poster child for strip-mall sprawl when it replaced a lovely nine-hole golf course with a shopping center a few years ago, Canton has emerged with a strong citizens group, Canton Advocates for Responsible Expansion Inc. Among other things, CARE questioned the town's ability to enforce land-use regulations after members discovered that a builder in Collinsville had ignored the stipulations of his inland wetlands permit.
Simsbury: Residents organized "Save The Woods" to preserve 424 forested acres that the Ethel Walker School was considering for a housing development, and created Simsbury Homeowners Advocating Responsible Expansion to oppose a big-box development on Route 10.
There's now a proposal to sell development rights to the Ethel Walker land to the town, which voters must approve in November. The developer of the big-box proposal has radically changed the project to a mixed-use, New Urbanist design.
Waterford: With assistance from the University of Connecticut's Center for Land Use Education and Research, Waterford produced a model low-impact housing development. The subdivision in the Jordan Cove area used techniques that hydrologically mimic a forested landscape, thus lessening the amount of stormwater leaving the site and polluting nearby waterways. The CLEAR staff offers education, training and technical assistance to towns, and leads projects such as a recent build-out analysis in East Haddam that shows town leaders how the town will develop under current zoning regulations.
New Haven: It's not enough to slow growth in rural areas; growth needs somewhere to go. The smart growth idea is to make city and town centers more appealing. The New Haven Urban Design League has been integral to the Elm City's comeback, weighing in on the expansion of Yale-New Haven Hospital, the downtown move of Gateway Community College and virtually every other recent project in the city.
These grass-roots efforts are beginning to coalesce into a statewide coalition under the banner of 1,000 Friends of Connecticut. This group, formed over the past two years and based on a model developed in Oregon and elsewhere, includes business, government, education, labor and religious leaders. It recently distributed a briefing book advocating growth management legislation to leaders at the Capitol, and members will be in the halls during the 2007 session pushing for these changes.
But while local action is essential, so many growth issues transcend town boundaries that there must be a state effort to encourage wiser growth management.
About 20 states have adopted some kind of growth management strategy, and in each case the governor led the way. That suggests that if Connecticut is to make headway against relentless development, it's got to be the governor's baby, a top priority. And it must be an issue in the gubernatorial campaign this fall.
The object is to protect natural and scenic resources by encouraging development in areas with existing infrastructure, and making those areas more attractive by increasing housing and transportation options. To get there, the governor and legislative leaders must:
Change tax policy. This is the elephant in the living room. Study after study says the state's heavy reliance on the property tax to fund local education pushes towns toward poor land-use decisions. The need for more property-tax revenue led Canton to abandon its golf course for a mall. Though it is politically daunting, officials have to move a substantial amount of school funding to a different source of revenue - or nothing will change.
Strengthen planning. There have to be strong local, regional and state plans that are consistent with one another. This is another difficult but essential step toward sensible growth management. Good planning should coordinate smart growth efforts. For example, in the past year the state has made major commitments to transportation and affordable housing. Why not connect them, by making the funds available for transit-oriented development?
Provide incentives. The state needs to put its money into smart growth by funding incentives for residential and commercial development in town centers and transit corridors. The state cannot tell people where to live, but it certainly can decide where to put its own money.
Study the impact. Though the issue has been heavily examined, there are two studies that would help illuminate the growth question in Connecticut. One is a build-out study, to show what the state will look like in 20 years if current development patterns continue. We suspect this will have the same effect the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come had on Ebenezer Scrooge. It would also be helpful to know how much sprawl is costing the state, when compared with the cost of more compact patterns of development.
Connecticut is on a path to become a giant, undifferentiated subdivision connected by highways and strip malls. State leaders, working with local groups, must develop a strong and sophisticated program that gets us on a different path, one that accommodates growth while maintaining the natural environment that has historically made this state one of the country's best places to live.
There isn't much time.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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