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From the Heartland, A Bid to Protect Greenspace and Cities

Ohio votes for smarter growth

April 23, 2001 |
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

For Chris Knopf, the $400 million Clean Ohio bond issue recently approved by voters was about casting off the old rust-belt mentality of his home state.

Mr. Knopf, the director of the Ohio office of the Trust for Public Land (TPL), lived through the traumatic deindustrialization of Ohio during the recession of the 1980s. He watched the factory closings, and he wondered if Ohio would offer opportunities that would keep him in the state. Although economic conditions have slowly improved, he still worries that Ohio is falling behind other parts of the country — places like Austin, Portland, and Seattle — that offer skilled workers a high quality of life with vibrant urban areas and easy access to natural beauty. “If we can’t attract the best and the brightest here, we risk becoming the next generation of mill towns,” he says.

Such concerns are shared by residents of every Midwest state. Residents and elected leaders in the heartland now recognize that communities that learn how to improve the quality of life by revitalizing urban neighborhoods, conserving natural resources, and safeguarding environmental values are more economically competitive. A study last year by Richard Florida, a professor of regional economic development at Carnegie Mellon University, found that superior environmental quality and accessible natural resources are vital to attracting the talented people needed to compete in the new, global economy.

That’s why Ohio’s bid to protect farmland and improve cities is so crucial. The bond issue, Mr. Knopf believes, is a sign that the state is finally willing to invest in the amenities that will make Ohio more competitive. As proposed by Governor Bob Taft, the measure authorizes the issuance of $100 million in bonds to protect open space and river corridors, $50 million to improve water quality in Ohio’s streams, $25 million to develop recreational trails, and $25 million to preserve farmland with a voluntary program to purchase development rights from farmers.

The other $200 million will revitalize Ohio cities by helping to clean up and redevelop brownfields — abandoned sites that are contaminated by previous industrial uses. If the state Legislature approves reissuing the bonds as they are paid off, Ohio will have a permanent, dedicated funding stream for these purposes.

Gov. Taft has acknowledged that Ohio must work hard to catch up to other states. Ohio ranks 47th among states in the amount of public recreational land per capita. And even in parts of Ohio that have not grown much in recent decades, uncontrolled development around the edges of metropolitan areas has eaten away at the best of the Ohio countryside.

Indeed between 1960 and 1990 the amount of urbanized land in Ohio grew almost five times as fast as the urbanized population. As a result, uncontrolled suburban development is now one of the state’s top water quality problems because of the way polluted stormwater runs off the developed landscape. Only about half of Ohio’s streams are fishable and swimmable.

In recent years there also has been an active discussion around the state about the loss of prime farmland. Ohio is losing an average of 43,000 acres of farmland a year to development, one of the highest rates in the nation. Much of the loss is occurring around Columbus, Cleveland, and other metropolitan areas, leading a state task force to conclude in 1997 that farmland loss and outmigration from urban centers were two sides of the same coin.

What Ohio has needed is a comprehensive approach to growing smarter — a change in state policies and incentives to help preserve open space and farmland while promoting the redevelopment of existing urban areas so as to reduce pressures for new development in the countryside.

Although the $400 million bond issue will not by itself turn the state around, it is a significant first step in the right direction. The campaign, which attracted 57 percent of the statewide vote last November, was co-chaired by Mr. Taft, a Republican, and former U.S. Senator John Glenn, a Democrat. Endorsers also included the Ohio Farm Bureau, Ohio Realtors, and the Ohio Chamber of Commerce — all of which are noteworthy in a state that has little tradition of state involvement in land use planning or investment in public lands.

Virtually the only organized opposition, surprisingly, came from several of the state’s environmental groups, which pointed out flaws in the state’s brownfield cleanup program and worried that bond funds would bail out polluters. To prevent improper use of the money, environmental and conservation groups are now lobbying the Legislature for strong rules to guide implementation.

Proponents of the bond issue are convinced that the state’s new open space preservation and urban revitalization program signals a shift in priorities. It also sends an unmistakable message from the heartland. Ohioans are tired of lagging behind. Midwest voters support Smart Growth policies that preserve open space and strengthen older communities. If it can happen in Ohio, long a bellwether state for understanding core American values, it can happen anywhere.

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