It is great to live in Connecticut; we have a quality of life that is the envy of much of America and most of the world. But that quality of life is threatened.
Our major cities are struggling with high property taxes, flat or declining populations, weakening job opportunities, high-need children in public schools and the lingering perception of lawlessness. In many of our smaller towns, the increasing cost of education is pitting old-timers against newcomers and forcing multiple budget referendums.
There is no one answer to these problems. As House chairman of the General Assembly's Planning and Development Committee, I have worked with dedicated legislators to advance our Connecticut version of smart growth. As we held public hearings in municipalities across the state, we heard from Nutmeggers who are living farther and farther from their workplaces and thus spending more time in traffic and less at home. We noted that expensive infrastructure is crumbling and going unused in our core cities while being rebuilt at great expense in formerly rural areas. Connecticut is losing open space at a rate twice the national average.
After hearings and discussions with a range of interest groups, we identified five great needs our state must meet to enhance our quality of life: The need to create jobs and homes, to preserve open space, to encourage people to live in urban areas, to save tax dollars and to encourage participation in planning at the local level of government.
Our committee made a start at sensible management of the state's growth with legislation in 2005. This legislation strengthened the role of the municipal plan of conservation and development. It requires municipalities to consider areas in town appropriate for compact, pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use development and for the local legislative body to vote on the plan.
Our legislation encourages consistency between municipal, regional and state conservation and development plans by requiring each town to submit its plan to the region for review and the region to prepare a plan and submit it to the state for review.
It established Priority Funding Areas where state tax dollars for economic development will be directed, reducing the need for new infrastructure investments, and established Corridor Management Areas around interstate highways, rail lines and transportation centers to encourage growth and development in those areas. This year we made bonding available for transportation-oriented development.
This is a start, one that must be built upon. As I leave the legislature and step down as point man on growth-management legislation, I'm convinced we must provide incentives that encourage cooperation, not competition, between our municipalities. Our property tax system does not encourage cooperation because, as currently devised, one town's tax gain is another town's tax loss.
There are four levers to encourage cooperation between municipalities. The voters will soon choose a governor. That leader should:
Allocate funding to Corridor Management Areas and Priority Funding Areas, encouraging transit-oriented development.
Fund our programs that preserve farmland and open space.
Have an urban strategy focusing not on big buildings but good schools and aggressive policing. Most middle-class families move to the safest neighborhoods with the best public schools they can afford. Our next governor must work with local officials to create more of those neighborhoods in our urban areas.
Strengthen the capacity of the state Office of Policy and Management to provide planning assistance, tools and technical support to municipalities.
Concurrently, organizations such as the Sierra Club and 1,000 Friends of Connecticut must encourage their members to be involved in local planning. Growth management should come from the bottom up, not the top down. We have laid the groundwork; now is the time for a bold agenda for transportation and land use in Connecticut.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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