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Conference on Smart Growth Propels Land Use As National Issue

Governors take up call to curb sprawl

August 1, 1998 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

BALTIMORE — The fledgling national movement to curb sprawl, protect farmland and rebuild cities was given a significant boost in July when senior officials from 17 states met here to showcase successful projects to manage growth.

The State Smart Growth Strategies Conference, held on July 7 and 8, was convened by Maryland’s Democratic Governor Parris Glendening. Last year, Mr. Glendening signed the path-breaking Smart Growth and Neighborhood Conservation Act. It aims to slow suburban sprawl by using the state’s $16 billion annual budget to direct spending for roads, schools, public works and buildings, housing, and other new construction to places that already have been developed. Under the new law, which takes effect in October, state agencies also are instructed to deny funding for new construction in outlying regions.

The Smart Growth concept — investing state subsidies to improve cities, protect farmland, and preserve the environment — represents a breakthrough by linking economics with social policy goals. The concept, which authorities have called the most promising new tool for managing growth in a generation, has caused a stir in state capitols, said officials who attended the Baltimore conference.

“Since we passed the law, we’ve heard from at least 25 governors who want to know how the program works,” said Mr. Glendening. “Democrats and Republicans are interested. Here in Maryland, people tell us that next to education, controlling sprawl and rebuilding our sense of community is the most important thing we are doing. We are finding the same thing in other states. Governors are approaching planning and smart growth from different directions, but it’s on the radar screen of issues to be addressed all over the country.”

Not since the early 1970s, when Congress considered a national land use statute and four states — Vermont (1970), Florida, (1972), Oregon (1973), Georgia (1974) — established comprehensive planning programs, has the work of reforming land use policy gained such political traction. In their state of the state and inaugural addresses earlier this year, 15 governors appealed to their constituents to preserve open space, improve quality of life, and strengthen land use laws to stop sprawl. The issue transcends party affiliations. Of those governors raising concerns about sprawl there were eight Republicans — from Arizona, California, Connecticut, Idaho, New Jersey, New York, South Carolina, and Utah — and seven Democrats, from Colorado — Delaware, Georgia, Hawaii, Maryland, Oregon, and Vermont.

Although states are taking different paths to stem sprawl, the transportation, environmental, planning, and resource agency leaders who attended the Baltimore conference agreed on several issues. The primary reason for the new interest in growth management is the nation’s vibrant economy and surging population growth in the West, and in most of the nation’s suburbs, they said. Residents are feeling the effects of haphazard development in their rising tax bills and their diminishing sense of comfort. In short, many Americans are feeling crowded in the very communities that they used to feel at home. That sense of being hemmed in is translating into political restiveness.

According to a front-page article in the New York Times in June, growth management has emerged as a top issue in the California gubernatorial race. Since 1996, 13 cities in California’s San Francisco Bay Area have established urban growth boundaries. Eight of the boundaries were established by voter referendums, and five were approved by city councils, according to the Greenbelt Alliance, a San Francisco-based open space conservation group. This fall, five other cities are scheduled to vote on growth boundaries.

In Colorado, the Denver area Council of Governments adopted a region-wide voluntary urban growth boundary that is supported by Gov. Roy Romer, a Democrat.

Salt Lake City business leaders have teamed up with farmers, environmentalists, planners, and Republican Gov. Michael O. Leavitt on a far-reaching program to rein in sprawl along the Wasatch front. A recent poll found that 55% of Salt Lake area residents supported efforts to halt sprawl, including enacting an urban growth boundary. Peter Calthorpe, a leading planner and architect from California, has been hired to help local advocates hold public visioning sessions, conduct research, develop citizen guides, and establish a communications program designed to enact new growth management regulations in the next year or so.

At the state level, few leaders are doing more than Christine Todd Whitman, New Jersey’s Republican governor. In January, during her second inaugural address, Gov. Whitman announced that preserving open space and curtailing sprawl would be the focus of her second administration. Herbert Simmens, the executive director of the New Jersey State Planning Office, represented the governor at the conference and explained that Ms. Whitman is actively seeking to put her pledge into effect.

In May, Gov. Whitman proposed to add 7 cents to the gasoline tax to finance the purchase of 1 million acres of farmland and open space, or roughly half of the remaining undeveloped land in the state. The tax-leery legislature turned down the proposal in June.

Undeterred, Ms. Whitman is now proposing to set aside $98 million annually in sales tax revenues both to buy land, purchase development rights to farmland, and to finance a new $1 billion bond to buy open space and to preserve historic buildings.

Altogether Ms. Whitman is proposing to raise $1.85 billion to preserve open space in New Jersey. “It’s the boldest open space initiative in the country,” said Mr. Simmens. The package is awaiting legislative approval prior to being put before voters this fall.

In Delaware, Gov. Thomas R. Carper, a Democrat, succeeded three years ago in adopting 10 statewide planning goals for state agencies and local governments. The goals include directing state investments to developed regions, protecting farmland, repairing highways instead of building new ones, and encouraging redevelopment of the state’s cities. All of the goals are being implemented under the Delaware Quality of Life Act, which was approved in 1988 and directs counties to prepare comprehensive plans that are overseen by the state.

David S. Hugg 3rd, the director of the Delaware Office of State Planning and Coordination, said the 1995 goals are accepted by state officials and are guiding land uses. The state Department of Transportation, for example, has all but halted construction of new roads in favor of fixing existing highways. The state legislature approved a 1998 budget that included appropriating $100 million for farmland and open space preservation, community redevelopment, and housing. Several state agencies and Kent County have teamed up to enact new zoning, purchase the development rights to large farms, and make other investment decisions that will protect open land east of State Route 1, the main highway from Wilmington to the beaches on the Atlantic Ocean.

“We’ve been doing a lot of little things that added together are Smart Growth,” said Mr. Hugg, whose state has spent $26 million since 1996 to preserve 30,000 acres of farmland. “Maybe we didn’t have as good a PR firm as Maryland.”

Another state that has become more active in promoting Smart Growth is Massachusetts, said Trudy Coxe, the state’s Secretary of Environmental Affairs. In 1996, Republican Governor William Weld signed an executive order that is aimed at slowing sprawl and investing in areas that already have been developed. Ms. Coxe said it does so by:

  • Directing state agencies to review how their policies affected uses of land, and to begin amending those that accelerated sprawl.

  • Specifically altering state economic policy to favor redevelopment over new development.

  • Encouraging agencies that build or permit roads, schools, and other infrastructure projects to conduct a detailed analysis on whether the projects will accelerate sprawl before the permit is issued.

  • Directing state agencies to cooperate with each other and with local governments on land use issues.

Ms. Coxe said the order is causing government officials to reassess their programs and is prompting staff members from different agencies to more directly interact with each other. Fiefdoms, like the Department of Transportation and the Department of Education, are being penetrated. The program, though, is still so new that its effect on actual projects has not yet become apparent to the public, said Ms. Coxe, though road and infrastructure projects are now being designed according to the guidelines of the executive order.

Clearly, the star of the conference was Mr. Glendening, who spent nearly an hour describing Maryland’s comprehensive investment and land use strategy to slow sprawl. The Smart Growth law directs state agencies to invest public funds for economic development in existing cities and towns, and to deny most allocations that encourage suburban sprawl.

Mr. Glendening said the bulk of state economic development spending is to be made in “Priority Funding Areas.” These include every existing city and town in the state, plus designated places where local governments and the state anticipate growth and have built or are planning to build water and sewer systems.

Local governments are required to provide the state Office of Planning with maps that show the precise boundaries of the communities, rural villages, and previously developed regions that constitute their Priority Funding Areas. The Office of Planning is responsible for making this information available to other state agencies.

Public investments covered by the law include, but are not limited to, new roads, water and sewer systems, economic development grants, housing grants, leasing of state office space, and construction of new state buildings, schools, government buildings, factories, retail stores, malls, and civic centers.

Exceptions for projects outside Priority Funding Areas include those that protect public health or involve federal funds that cannot be constrained by state law.

Mr. Glendening explained that Maryland is intent on rebuilding its cities and neighborhoods in order to make urban living more attractive and affordable, and to slow sprawl. Thus, his Smart Growth program:

  • Establishes a new school construction funding policy that encourages modernization and expansion of existing schools and discourages building new schools in outlying areas.

  • Provides tax credits to business owners who create at least 25 new full-time jobs in cities, towns, and other areas that already have been developed.

  • Provides $200 million in below-market-rate mortgages to encourage home buying in urban neighborhoods.

  • Establishes a $300,000 state mortgage program that provides grants of at least $3,000 to families that purchase homes in Priority Funding Areas near their place of work.

  • Provides income tax credits equal to 15% of the cost of rehabilitating historic structures.

  • Directs the Department of Business and Economic Development to invest state funds in jobs, plant modernizations, new businesses, and other activities in Priority Funding Areas.

  • Establishes new health standards and provides loans, grants, and property tax credits to more quickly clean up contaminated urban sites and promote redevelopment.

A third area of concern, he said, was preserving farmland and natural areas. The Smart Growth initiative:

  • Directs the state Department of Transportation to work more closely with local governments in planning and paying for improvements to repair and enlarge roads in cities and towns and to discourage building new roads in undeveloped regions.

  • Prevents state agencies from investing public dollars in most construction planned for rural regions and natural areas.

  • Establishes up to $154 million in general obligation bonds and state appropriations to buy land and purchase development rights that will conserve 200,000 acres of farmland and open space by 2011.

“For 50 years, Americans have believed that moving up means moving out. The country is so big that we took for granted the quality of our resources and the health of our land. We are facing the consequences of how we are growing,” said Mr. Glendening. “Nothing we are doing will have a more long term effect on Maryland than Smart Growth.”

About the Author
Keith Schneider, a contributor to the Detroit Free Press, the New York Times, and National Public Radio’s Living on Earth, is executive director of the Michigan Land Use Institute in Benzonia. At the invitation of Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening, he spoke at the Smart Growth Conference about grass roots organizing and communications.

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