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White House, Congress Mobilize Around Sprawl

Leaders in both parties are dueling for command of the sprawl issue

April 1, 1999 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Carol M. Browner, the Administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, appeared in Texas last December to tell developers and land use advocates how the White House was becoming more deeply involved in supporting local initiatives to attack sprawl. As Ms. Browner descended from the podium after her speech, an activist approached. “Don’t let the Republicans gain command of this issue,” he urged. Ms. Browner paused, and with unusual resolve replied, “Don’t worry. We won’t.”

Indeed, four weeks later, President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore outlined a series of Federal spending initiatives for planning and open space preservation that, while cautious in approach, catapulted taming sprawl, improving quality of life, and preserving open space to national prominence.

In early May, the Vice President will further highlight these issues and test new messages about reining in sprawl during a four-day National Town Meeting on sustainable development in Detroit. The conference, which is expected to attract 5,000 participants, comes as communities in Michigan and across the country build unusually broad and energetic coalitions to battle sprawl and find new tools to encourage reinvestment in cities and inner suburbs.

Mr. Gore appears intent on seizing land use as a central feature of his run for the Presidency. Sprawl, though, also is attracting equally serious attention from moderate Republican governors. The result is that leaders in both parties are now dueling for command of the issue.

For the moment, by virtue of the prominence of the White House, the Democrats appear to have the advantage.

• On January 11, Mr. Gore announced the administration’s “Livable Communities Initiative” to use tax credits, bonds, transportation spending, and investments in planning to “help communities have the tools and resources they need to preserve green spaces, ease traffic congestion, promote regional cooperation, improve schools, and enhance economic competitiveness.”

• On January 12, the President unveiled the “Lands Legacy Initiative,” a two-phase program to spend $1 billion to expand existing national forest and wilderness areass and to acquire open space for urban and suburban communities.

A week later, on January 19, President Clinton summarized both programs in the State of the Union in which he promised to “help communities save open space, ease traffic congestion, and grow in ways that enhance every citizen’s quality of life.”

Even as they acknowledged the White House interest, several Republican governors were quick to assert that they already were taking considerably bolder steps to reform land use policy at the state level. Governor Christine Todd Whitman of New Jersey gained a $1 billion bond in November to preserve 1 million acres of open space and farmland. Arizona’s Governor, Jane Hull, signed legislation last year that established a state commission to advance smart growth principles and provide $20 million annually for community planning. Utah Governor Michael O. Leavitt is actively promoting the Quality Growth Act, which he approved last year to establish a state commission to design incentives that enable cities and towns to control sprawl. Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge launched a five-year $1.3 billion “Growing Greener Initiative” which includes $900 million to promote sound land use across the state.

Never before, not even during the early 1970s, when federal land use legislation was first proposed and states like Oregon put growth management programs into effect, has sprawl achieved such attention nationwide or in Washington as it does today. The reason: Voters care. Last November they approved 70 percent of the more than 200 state and local ballot measures around the country that called for public investment in preserving open space, farmland, historic resources and strengthening planning and zoning.

The question for both parties, say strategists, is how to tap the grass roots energy and not stumble over the tricky politics of sprawl. In interviews, Congressional staff members say Republican House and Senate leaders are being very careful. On the one hand, Republicans do not want to approve the White House land use initiatives and hand Vice President Gore a victory to use in his campaign. On the other, they also don’t want to defeat proposals that voters find appealing.

“Ultimately, what both parties are talking about is giving communities more control over their fate,” said Jonathan Adler, Senior Director of Environmental Policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a Washington-based free market think tank. “Politically what happens on this issue is who defines the terms. If this debate is decided over promoting livable communities, protecting open space, protecting the environment, then the Administration and the Democrats are the winners. If, however, it’s about favoring federal control over local control, then its a political liability for the Administration.”

It’s a challenge that the Democrats and the Vice President, who designed the livability and land legacy initiatives, seem more than ready to take up even though it is stirring angst among wealthy special interests like home builders, realtors, developers, truckers, and bankers.

The White House is taking a dual approach that is similar to steps that Democrats and a handful of moderate Republicans are taking in Congress. First, they are gaining new understanding about how Federal programs provide incentives to sprawling development and cause disinvestment in cities. Last summer, Michigan Senator Carl Levin, a Democrat, joined with Vermont Republican Senator James Jeffords to commission a study by the General Accounting Office. It is aimed at identifying the specific Federal rules, tax code provisions, investments and other programs that drive sprawl. The report is due by May.

Sen. Jeffords and Sen. Levin also formed the Senate Smart Growth Task Force in January. The new 25-member group, which includes four other Republicans including Ted Stevens, a conservative from Alaska, is designed to “explore and promote community-focused development policies.” One Republican member of the task force, Sen. John Chafee of Rhode Island, held two days of hearings on the causes and solutions to sprawl in March. Similar efforts, led by Rep. Earl Blumenauer, an Oregon Democrat, are under way in the House.

The other tactic embraced by the White House is to limit the Federal involvement to providing financial support for communities to invest in preserving land or improving planning. One provision in the package calls for providing $40 million to help cities plan better. Another provision would leverage $700 million in tax credits to gain $9.5 billion in state and community-supported bonds for land purchases. A third provision, aimed at rebuilding urban neighborhoods, would provide $100 million to city residents who use mass transit — and are not as heavily burdened by auto expenses — to help them qualify for larger mortgages.

“The Administration and those working on the issue in Congress understand that this is a national issue, but not necessarily a Federal one,” said Constance Beaumont, director of state and local policy for the National Trust for Historic Preservation in Washington. “The Federal role is to provide support for communities, end the subsidies and the programs that promote sprawl, and get out of the way.”

Nothing that the White House proposed is earth shattering. The initiatives, in fact, are quite modest and seem clearly designed to test how ideas about land use play in public. An aide to the Vice President and several Democratic pollsters said Mr. Gore is readying more aggressive proposals in a bid to shape a majority coalition of city residents, minorities, progressive whites, labor, environmentalists, suburbanites, and rural residents who are being hurt by urban disinvestment and sprawl.

Strategists in both parties say Mr. Gore is on the right track. At this point, they say, the bulk of the political peril appears to lie with the conservative national Republican leaders, among them Michigan Gov. John Engler, who are suspicious about land use and regard sprawl as a success, a logical result of their governing strategy.

During the past two decades, the GOP built its majority in part on an anti-tax, anti-government, anti-regulation, anti-environment, pro-business message. In effect, Republicans convinced Americans that government was a burden to the nation, to business, and to freedom. The message resounded in an electorate turned off by waste and too stretched to get very involved in local political issues. The Republicans came to control the suburbs, rural areas, the Deep South, and the Rocky Mountain West and as a result dominated the domestic agenda over the last 20 years.

Sprawl, however, is now an important civic concern in all of these Republican strongholds. Millions of citizens are appalled by the bulldozers, new highways, subdivisions, strip malls, crowded schools, and the congestion and pain they thought they could avoid by living in the suburbs. Legions of people who rarely if ever participated in government are turning up at city council, township, and county commission hearings to help decide how their communities should develop.

For many, its a revelation. Very quickly they recognize that solving issues related to sprawl means having to make decisions. It means taking steps to enforce existing regulations, invent new regulatory programs, invest public dollars, and simply govern with imagination and courage. It also means changing the priorities of local governance from supporting business and jobs at any cost, to elevating quality of life and community virtues to the highest priority.

In short, the anti-government, anti-regulation message no longer fits so well. Taking government off the backs of citizens, residents discover, usually means that developers have fewer barriers to do all the things that people now find increasingly unacceptable.

After a miserable year of scandal, the Clinton Administration has latched on to a set of concerns that affect the lives of most Americans. How far will it take them? The national election is still a year away and it’s difficult to predict what might motivate voters then. Still, sprawl has taken its place on the political landscape and Republicans and Democrats are busy figuring out how to use the issue to their advantage.

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