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Does Compassionate Conservatism Mean Halting Sprawl?

Pennsylvania's Republican governor thinks so

September 1, 2000 |
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Back in 1994, when he first ran for governor of Pennsylvania, Tom Ridge cast himself as a property rights fundamentalist, a politician who essentially believed government had no business interfering in personal decisions about how people used their land. Formerly an obscure congressman from the declining industrial city of Erie, Governor Ridge propounded a pro-business, relaxed regulatory agenda. He received early and enthusiastic support from the Pennsylvania Landowners Association, a property rights group opposed to rigorous environmental and zoning regulations.

Yet after taking office, Gov. Ridge, a close personal friend of Republican nominee George W. Bush and a rising G.O.P star, became receptive to a growing chorus of outrage over the continued abandonment of Pennsylvania’s cities and the loss of vast quantities of farmland to low density development despite nearly zero population growth.

Philadelphia, site of the Republican National Convention, lost more people during the 1990s than any other American city — nearly 150,000 residents. Its devastated neighborhoods contain 54,000 abandoned buildings and 31,000 vacant lots. Meanwhile the suburban counties surrounding Philadelphia have lost more than a third of their farmland in the last 25 years to suburban sprawl.

Gov. Ridge appointed a blue ribbon citizens’ panel in 1997, the 21st Century Environment Commission, to identify the state’s most significant environmental problems. In a surprisingly strong document the Commission said sprawl was clearly the state’s most pressing environmental issue and recommended reforms to Pennsylvania’s land-use laws. Gov. Ridge embraced the document and issued an executive order to:

  • Create an interagency task force to identify ways state agencies could change their policies to reduce sprawling development.
  • Designate a special state agency, the Center for Local Government, to identify and promote the best practices to manage development. The Center conducted 53 public forums across the state in which hundreds of people expressed discontent over neglected Main streets and vanishing open space. The Center recently drew up guidelines for grants to local municipalities to promote better planning.

The Commission’s findings, which received a favorable response in the press, also had one more significant effect. They enabled Gov. Ridge to recast himself as a sprawl fighter.

Last June Gov. Ridge’s work reached a milestone when he signed into law the first anti-sprawl legislation in Pennsylvania’s history. Dubbing the two-bill package “Growing Smarter,” Mr. Ridge said the legislation was a step toward “eliminating what has been a 20th century attitude that you could not nurture a strong economy and at the same time preserve and enhance natural resources.” The bills are a modest step toward curbing sprawling development in the Keystone State. They nevertheless signaled a significant change in attitude by a respected Republican governor, who clearly is intent on making efforts to fight sprawl, improve the environment, and strengthen cities part of Governor Bush’s Compassionate Conservative agenda.

The Pennsylvania bills:

  • Allow municipalities to jointly target certain areas for development on a regional basis and protect other areas as open space.
  • Relieve individual municipalities of the requirement to zone for every land use if they participate in regional planning.

Just how far Gov. Ridge has come since 1994 was displayed in a widely-read op-ed he wrote for the New York Times that chastised Republicans for allowing the Democrats to seize the high ground on the environment. Acknowledging that suburban sprawl is a “first order environmental problem,” which Vice President Gore was the first to introduce in the presidential campaign, Gov. Ridge lamented that Republicans had nothing to say on the issue except that economic growth is paramount to other considerations. “The truth is we need both trees and jobs — and we cannot accept a public debate that forces us to choose between them,” Gov. Ridge wrote.

The governor touted Pennsylvania’s Land Recycling Program, which in 1995 he signed into law within weeks after taking office, as a better solution than buying open land as proposed by Vice President Gore. The recycling program offers private industry incentives to reuse vacant industrial land, which rust-belt Pennsylvania has in spades.

In the last five years, Pennsylvania’s recycling law has fostered 500 cleanups and hundreds more are in the works. Mr. Ridge also successfully promoted a $100 million increase in Pennsylvania’s farmland preservation program, which has invested $300 million to buy the development rights to 1,300 farms. “Simply put: The best way to halt the development of suburban and rural greenfields is to find ways to reuse vacant, urban brownfields,” Ridge wrote.

Pennsylvania has a long way to go to revive its traditional towns and save its rural areas. Unlike most states, which have just city and county governments, Pennsylvania gives independent planning and zoning powers to more than 2,500 cities, townships, and boroughs. But Gov. Ridge’s conviction that sprawl is damaging what is best about his state and cannot be allowed to continue signals a sea change in Republican political thinking. No longer are conservative politicians content to promote development anywhere, at any price. In order to improve the quality of life and enhance the economy, development needs to be better managed. What Tom Ridge discovered is that to accomplish that goal, government has a significant role to play.

Thomas Hylton, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, is author of Save Our Land, Save Our Towns, and host of a public television documentary based on the book. He can be reached at hylton@ptdprolog.net.

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