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Smart Regions, Smarter Growth

Tom Condon

November 14, 2010

When the recession began a couple of years ago, then-White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel urged the country not to let a serious crisis go to waste. He meant that the beleaguered economy could allow changes that before were thought impossible.

Connecticut thus far has largely failed to take advantage of the crisis, and instead has just bumbled along, hoping for a miracle recovery, missing opportunities. One is in the area of land-use planning, a chronic weakness in this state.

Here's why this is important. For the past six decades the state has befouled its nest with sprawl. At some point, somebody realized this low-density, auto-dependent development was increasing pollution and energy use, taking away farms, woods and scenic vistas, isolating the very poor in urban areas, stranding the elderly, increasing obesity and this is important costing a bloody fortune. Extending roads, sewers, power lines, schools, etc. deep into the suburbs didn't come cheap. You wonder why there is a budget deficit?

To dig out of this mess, the state needs to do a bunch of things at once. It must introduce transit, repopulate town centers with mixed-income housing and mixed-use development, protect sensitive natural areas and save dwindling open space. This is all not going to happen by chance. It will take intelligent planning.

Here's a snapshot of the current state of planning, courtesy of some folks in Coventry.

Coventry has a plan of conservation and development, as required by state law. The plan recommends coordinated commercial development in Bolton and Coventry along the Route 44 corridor, the main east-west drag. The development concept is endorsed by the Windham Region Council of Governments, of which Coventry is a member, and the regional plan of the Capital Region Council of Governments, which includes Bolton.

While this makes economic sense for Coventry, the town doesn't have a sewer or other waste treatment facility on its stretch of road, which burdens existing owners and limits new development.

But as it happens, the adjoining town of Bolton is building a sewer along Route 44, after years of planning, to correct a number of water-related issues in the Bolton Lakes area. So the Coventry folks figured, let's extend it a short way into our town, and we all win.

A brilliant solution, but for this: Most towns get state help to build sewers. Projects that receive state money have to be consistent with the State Plan of Conservation and Development. The current iteration of the state plan classifies all of Coventry as a rural preservation zone and recommends against sewer lines.

Coventry planner Eric Trott said town officials are moving ahead and trying to work things out with the state. Coventry and Bolton, which had its own battle with the state, agreed to put a second pipe in the sewer trench, so in case Coventry gets the go-ahead, they won't have to rip up the asphalt. Coventry officials make a good case.

Sewers can be an instrument of sprawl or smart growth, depending on how they are used. Coventry has done pretty well at protecting its rustic character. Sewers would help encourage development in a few clusters along Route 44, and take development pressure off other areas. With new retail, residents wouldn't have to drive to another town for basic needs.

The point here is the planning. The adjoining towns are in different regional planning areas, though they share many of the same problems and issues. The local and regional plans don't agree with the state plan. It's hard to get on the same page.

The state plan embodies good growth management principles, such as keeping rural areas rural, but isn't particularly flexible and doesn't always appreciate local nuance. The troubles these two towns have had over the sewer plan suggest it might be worth reexaming the state's planning process.

My sense is that the region ought to be making the definitive plan, but not the way things now stand. At present we have too many regional planning organizations 15. California has 17. We could use fewer, covering larger areas.

The trick, harder than it might appear, is to define the region. As David LeVasseur of the state Office of Policy and Management rightly observed, some of the old criteria, such as local telephone calling areas and hospital service areas (and sadly, local newspaper subscription), no longer obtain.

So here I borrow an idea from the highly regarded architect and planner Patrick Pinnell, who earlier this year suggested dividing the state by river drainage areas. This gets most of the state into five regions, roughly equivalent to the five Congressional districts. "The drainage basins-as-basis at least has the merit of being pretty exact in boundaries, and probably the additional one of educating people better as to who their neighbors really are, " Pinnell said.

This would be an improvement on the mishmash of regions we have now, It would allow sound planning based on protecting water and other natural resources, and could invite other regional activities. There's some talk in state government about retooling the planning areas; this might be a place to start.

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.
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