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What Works, What Doesn’t in Smart Growth Policy

Lessons for Michigan from other states

April 13, 2003 | By Arlin Wasserman
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

CO Sprawl Action Center
  A Colorado Smart Growth initiative lost in a Rocky Mountain landslide after pro-sprawl developers convinced the governor to oppose it and then spent $6 million to defeat the measure. It is likely to only get worse in new northern Denver suburbs like this one.

Now that the demand by a broad coalition of conservation, business, civic, and elected leaders has persuaded Governor Jennifer Granholm to establish a Smart Growth council, it’s crucial that coalition members use the best strategies available for making sure their efforts result in permanent, meaningful land use changes. As the governor’s bipartisan Michigan Land Use Leadership Council gets set for its second meeting tomorrow, reform proponents have a priceless opportunity to learn from the successes and failures of colleagues in other states.

Research by the Michigan Land Use Institute and the Sierra Club/Mackinac Chapter will certainly help. The organizations determined both the blunders and the bold moves that have either sunk or saved citizen-based Smart Growth efforts elsewhere. The Institute looked closely at what happened in three large states — Colorado, Pennsylvania and Florida — while the Sierra Club informally surveyed many organizations across the country.

Here are three big lessons from the Institute’s in-depth research:

Lesson #1: Big Money Talks 
Large amounts of money can trump years of effective community organizing unless top state officials publicly and actively back Smart Growth initiatives. That’s the take-home conclusion from the recent Smart Growth debacle in Colorado, which, like Michigan, is plagued with Olympian levels of sprawl.

In 1998, Colorado’s environmental community launched a campaign for Amendment 24, which required a state analysis of all new development. The campaign’s simple message: Sprawl is bad and this will help stop it.

At first, victory seemed assured; initial polls indicated 80 percent of Colorado’s citizens supported Amendment 24, and its proponents had collected $1 million in campaign funds. But the homebuilders’ lobby had collected $6 million. They staged a sophisticated counter-campaign painting the amendment as extremist, unworkable, and detrimental to economic growth. The homebuilders also drafted a host of interests, from building trade union leaders to retired state political leaders, to defeat the proposal. And because reformers had not established a successful working relationship with popular Republican Governor Bill Owens, he came down against the amendment. Mr. Owens called on voters to reject it and instead urged them to allow him to control sprawl through what he claimed would be more effective, simpler measures.

With the governor offering this vague alternative and the amendment’s opponents boasting a huge campaign war chest, the proposal lost in a Rocky Mountain landslide. Now Colorado’s environmentalists find themselves on the outside as the governor works his way through a list of less ambitious reforms.

Lesson #2: The Right Message Must Reach the Right People
Pennsylvania, the Keystone State, offers the other side of the coin. The state now boasts some of the best Smart Growth policies in the nation thanks to a group called 10,000 Friends of Pennsylvania. The Friends spent years garnering support for their list of reforms from moderate business, government, planning and citizen leaders already engaged in land use issues.

They struck pay dirt in 2000 when then-Governor Tom Ridge, a Republican, unveiled his own list of reforms that was remarkably similar to the Friends’. They were happy to let Mr. Ridge take the credit for their proposals as they became law.

This big win stemmed directly from an innovative strategy. While the Friends were historically rooted in environmentalism, they hitched their wagon to Smart Growth’s stars: improved efficiency and quality of life. Their sophisticated email distribution system provided clear advice, analysis and information to thousands of public officials, business leaders, and agricultural experts while keeping Friends members and supporters informed and organized. The group also researched many Smart Growth-related issues and emailed its findings to the media, which then covered them.

When Gov. Ridge launched a task force to solicit input on the issue, the Friends had a large advisory board ready to provide a set of recommendations already familiar to the state’s business, farming and government leaders.

Lesson #3: Political Shifts Require New Messages and Allies
The Sunshine State has already explored much of the political territory Michigan is just beginning to enter. Florida was once like Michigan is now: mired in 19th century-style local land use decision-making. Today it boasts one of the nation’s best Smart Growth programs.

This story begins in 1985, when the state Legislature and a mildly supportive Democratic Governor Bob Graham overhauled local land controls and created a top-down approach to growth management. A group of environmentalists and savvy developers known as 1,000 Friends of Florida showed him the way. As in Pennsylvania, these Friends stuck exclusively to Smart Growth, convincing the state Legislature to enact “concurrency,” a requirement that roads, sewers, and water lines be in place before a developer could start a project.

When Republican Jeb Bush ran for governor in 1998, he said he supported the state’s land use policies and proposed ways to speed up urban revitalization. But once elected, Governor Bush pandered to the property rights movement and tried to gut the state laws.

Fortunately, the Friends were still an active group. The organization carefully picked environmentalists and political progressives as allies, did some research, and unflinchingly cited the undue industry influence and bias driving Mr. Bush’s new position.

With the facts on its side, the Friends beat back the governor’s efforts. Today Florida’s management program remains in force largely because the Smart Growth community knew how to pick the right allies, get its conflict-of-interest message out, and organize a political response.

Confirmed by the Big Picture
Researchers from the Sierra Club/Mackinac Chapter, who interviewed environmental and land use organizations in 13 states, confirmed the Institute’s finding that political leadership from top state officials is crucial to advancing Smart Growth. The group’s report also found that when officials who ostensibly favor land use reform win elections, it’s crucial to keep a close eye on them. In Maryland, for example, the anti-sprawl coalition that helped elect Democrat Parris Glendening governor became alarmed when he started slipping on his Smart Growth commitments. The coalition said it would start issuing “report cards” on how he was addressing the issue. The governor promptly began living up to his promises.

The club also found that wide-ranging coalitions that include groups from outside of the traditional environmental field are basic to genuine land use reform. Groups as disparate as church organizations, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People often served as primary sources for Smart Growth messages. Those groups focused more on quality of life and social equity issues than on environmental concerns, and backed this up with well-organized groups of volunteers.

It’s Not the Party, It’s the Money
One optimistic finding: It doesn’t matter which political party controls a state’s government. That’s because Smart Growth is pro-business, pro-equity, pro-environment, and pro-quality of life. These are, in sum, bipartisan issues. 

But, as the Colorado landslide confirmed, the club found that the main causes for the failure of Smart Growth initiatives or legislation were lack of money and lack of support from top political leaders. Well-organized platoons of volunteers are important. But if the message they carry is either under-funded or unsupported by top officials, citizen efforts may well be doomed.

This is true because dedicated opponents of land use reform — the interests who profit from creating the plans, roads, and buildings that comprise sprawl — have lots of money. They use it to paint Smart Growth reforms not as ways to save tax dollars or improve quality of life but as governmental takeovers, over-regulation, and property rights violations.

This is why reformers must tie their goals to improving people’s lives and bring specific and practical advice for improving land use to political leaders and the pubic at large before opponents poison them with fear-based campaign tactics. It also shows that citizens need to keep working closely with the politicians they elect; it’s an essential partnership for overcoming the influence of money in politics. It’s also part of a winning formula for making Smart Growth a reality.

Arlin Wasserman is the Michigan Land Use Institute’s policy advisor. He can be reached at arlin@mlui.org.

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