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With Whitman at EPA, Bush Takes Sprawl Seriously

President chooses Republican anti-sprawl leader

January 26, 2001 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Of all the issues confronting the Republican-dominated West, perhaps none unites voters more than a distaste for traffic congestion and crowded suburbs. In November voters in five Rocky Mountain states approved 19 of 25 ballot initiatives to protect wild lands, build parks, and improve neighborhoods.

Even in Texas, curbing sprawl is a big-time issue. Last November, voters in Austin, El Paso, and San Antonio approved four ballot initiatives to raise their taxes to improve transportation and acquire land for open space.

Although he rarely mentioned sprawl during the campaign, President George W. Bush clearly paid attention. In naming former New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman to head the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the president turned to the nation’s most prominent Republican anti-sprawl leader to help his administration attack the problem.

Ever since 1998, when she took note of the “new space race” and promised to focus her second term on “improving the quality of life for all New Jerseyans,” Ms. Whitman has set the standard in the G.O.P. for responding to voter concerns about sprawl.

Her reward was a national reputation as an innovator. In 1998 she convinced New Jersey voters and the conservative Legislature to approve spending $100 million a year for 10 years to preserve one million acres of farmland and open space, or half the remaining undeveloped land in New Jersey, the nation’s most urban state. She strengthened the state’s commitment to land use planning as a way to achieve economic development that is more sensitive to the environment and communities.

Ms. Whitman provided more money to the state’s planning office, which produced an updated plan that gives cities plenty of incentives — including grants and state construction money — to strengthen zoning, improve transportation, protect neighborhoods, and preserve open space.

Barbara L. Lawrence, executive director of New Jersey Future, the state’s largest Smart Growth group, said Ms. Whitman “could be one of the sources of innovation and interest on the domestic policy side in the Bush administration. She does understand the purpose of planning. And she truly believes in land conservation.”

In Washington Ms. Whitman takes command of an agency that, under the Clinton White House, led the federal government’s work to encourage better planning by providing technical assistance and research grants. The question for Ms. Whitman is how much room will she have to expand the EPA’s land use work and bring her own ideas forward?

No doubt Ms. Whitman will have rivals in the administration. One is almost certain to be Gale Norton, the former Colorado attorney general and President Bush’s choice for Interior Secretary. Ms. Norton’s career and political views have been shaped by intensive work in the virulently anti-planning and extremist Wise Use movement, which views zoning and other measures to manage public and private land as akin to Communist-style central planning.

Ms. Norton’s antipathy towards planning, though, could be tempered by her equally strident views on state and local responsibilities. To be sure, there is much the federal government should do to tame sprawl — investing in public transit instead of new highways, providing more money for preserving wild lands and open spaces, improving public schools — but making communities more livable is largely a state and local issue. Ms. Norton supports transferring more authority from Washington to states and local governments, which is consistent with the views of Smart Growth advocates.

Another reason to be optimistic that the Bush administration will take sprawl seriously is the electoral power of the land use policy reform movement itself. The promising neighborhood-based political campaigns that emerged in the mid-1990s on the east and west coasts are now almost everywhere and influencing elections.

In Michigan, for instance, voters in 12 townships and counties last year tossed out their “pro-growth-at-any-cost” supervisors and commissioners and replaced them with Smart Growth leaders who encouraged economic development that also protected neighborhoods and the environment.

All over the country — including in Florida, where the president’s brother, Governor Jeb Bush, contends with sprawl as one of his state’s top problems — residents appear very comfortable with embracing community planning that is guided, funded, and encouraged by the states. That’s just the sort of framework that Ms. Whitman refined in New Jersey and that President Bush may well discover is a political asset. The local and state efforts to rein in sprawl, in short, are restoring something that the president said during the campaign that America sorely needed: A sense of shared mission.

The dismaying march of the same old ugly buildings, cookie-cutter subdivisions, giant malls, and congested roads is no longer universally viewed as an inevitable and necessary facet of economic growth. Improving how our communities develop could well be the domestic issue that Ms. Whitman and Ms. Norton collaborate on to strengthen public support for George W. Bush’s presidency.

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