Managing Growth: Calm Before A Policy Storm?

By: - May 8, 2001 12:00 am

Whatever happened to the growth issue? Nothing. Its still out there, as fresh in the minds of many Americans as the memories of this mornings traffic jam. Lawmakers and governors in at least two dozen states made proposals to deal with the issue this year. Action is still possible in several, but so far only a few have followed through. 

After a number of states tackled growth management head on at the end of the nineties, few states have taken serious new steps to rein in unbridled development this year.

“It’s real slow. We still have not seen much in the way of final action dealing with growth,” says growth policy analyst Larry Morandi of the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL).

But that doesn’t mean the issue is dead, experts say.

Consider the town of Easton, Maryland. With fewer than 10,000 residents and ubiquity on lists of the nation’s best small towns, Easton isn’t the first place you’d expect to find purported “smart growth” policy at work. But this is the state where lawmakers passed their governor’s landmark anti-sprawl legislation in 1997 and have tinkered around its edges to shape the contours of future development ever since.

A summertime tourist hub on the Chesapeake Bay’s Eastern Shore, Easton has kept pace with the state’s 11 percent population increase since 1990. And when state human resources officials decided that Talbot County had outgrown its cramped social services building in downtown Easton, they sought relief in an open field near the regional airport with plenty of space for parking.The site was a bull’s eye as far as the state’s brand new growth targets were concerned, but far off the mark after planners mapped out the home addresses of the 400-some clients who visit the center each month. Across the bay in Annapolis, officials sought compliance with an executive order requiring state agencies to give established town centers top priority when locating new public facilities.

That’s when someone suggested Easton’s abandoned gas plant a few blocks away from the current building, where parking is tight but a trip in a car not as necessary.

Awaiting the results of an environmental study scheduled for completion this month, county social services director Cathy Mols says she’s eager to move but pleased that the proposed facility is at least as accessible as where she is now.

“The town wants to preserve the downtown and obviously the state wants to preserve the land in general so I think it’s probably a good mix. It’s very positive,” Mols said of the moving project, now in its fourth year.

Smart growth, Maryland-style, has already forced project managers to rethink many such projects and in some cases delay their progress, but observers agree that the state has a jump on the growth issue.

“Maryland really set the pace in many respects. They got away from regulation and shifted the emphasis to assisting local governments in doing what they said they would do” to plan for inevitable growth, says NCSL’s Morandi.

This year, Maryland lawmakers carved a few more notches into their policy belts by passing most of Gov. Parris N. Glendening’s ambitious sprawl busting agenda. Topping the list was the first installment on a six-year, million investment in mass transit improvements that Glendening (D) hopes will result in a seamless public transportation system and doubled ridership by 2020.

Among a handful of other initiatives, lawmakers also approved Glendening’s request for a one-stop state smart growth information center and made new investments in parks, playgrounds and the creation of “habitat highways” that link hubs of open space.The Free State’s 2001 legislative flurry looks more like a tempest when compared with state-level growth activity around the country. But the relative quiet shouldn’t conceal isolated developments, says Joel Hirschhorn of the National Governors’ Association.

Nowhere, in fact, has growth management dominated headlines more than in Colorado, where lawmakers may be destined for a special session as negotiations on a growth compromise inch forward one day before their scheduled return home May 9.

“It’s been a very confrontational session, not so much among home builders and environmentalists and municipalities but in partisan rancor, which is unusual,” NCSL’s Morandi observes from his Denver office.

That may have something to do with the issue’s prominence in the state capitol for the last two years. Last year, Republican Gov. Bill Owens’ allies in the then-Republican controlled legislature pushed through his proposals for a state growth office and tax incentives for land preservation, affordable housing construction and brownfields redevelopment. But they fell short in their bid to secure a comprehensive plan to guide development for one of the fastest growing states in the nation.

After a failed November ballot measure and the conversion of the Senate to Democratic control for the first time in 40 years, Owens called again for “major reform of our land use laws” during his January state address. Action on a pair of dueling proposals resulted in a recent series of closed-door policy meetings for the major stakeholders two weeks ago. But the Senate’s reconstruction of HB1225 left conference committee members in a stalemate over this past weekend.

The Senate’s version would set perforated growth boundaries for the state’s most rapidly expanding counties and foster voluntary regional cooperation among local governments. It would limit the ability of localities to declare rigid bans on new development and provide several incentives for developers to build within the new “urban service areas.”

Rep. Joe Stengel (R), author of the original House bill, expressed new optimism that a full compromise could be achieved Monday after conferees arrived at a compromise concerning what sort of new construction would be allowed within the urban service areas. Lawmakers must still address the question of local versus regional growth control, the Denver Post reported.

Owens spokesman Dick Wadhams said the governor had concerns with what he views as a new layer of regional government created by the Senate version and the high number of counties accountable to its provisions.

Land use attorney James Mulligan, who moderated the working group meetings among local governments, businesses and environmental groups called by Senate President Stan Matsunaka, expressed confidence that Colorado will resolve its main conflicts this year. “I think they’ve come a long way. We’ve tried to define the inside-the-line, outside-the-line discussions. Our lawmakers seem to be sufficiently motivated to do something,” he said.

Elsewhere around the nation:

  • California’s 37 member Democratic Smart Growth Caucus has advanced several bills addressing various aspects of the issue, including farmland preservation, school siting and the creation of urban growth boundaries. Dan Flynn, spokesman for the caucus’s chairperson, Assemblywoman Patricia Wiggins, said members are likely to rally behind a few bills rather than push a large package.
  • In Hawaii, home to some of the most stringent land use laws in the country, the legislature approved the creation of a smart growth advisor and council and cited Maryland’s example in shifting from regulation to incentives.
  • Delaware Gov. Ruth Ann Minner (D) issued an executive order in March requiring state buildings and infrastructure spending to conform with growth goals to kick off her “Livable Delaware” initiative.
  • New Hampshire Gov. Jeanne Shaheen included several growth-related items in her 2001 budget request such as brownfields redevelopment loans and grants to improve geographic information systems (GIS) use among communities.
  • Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) is expected to sign legislation designed to help rural landowners protect their land from development and hit measurable conservation goals, addressing one of the proposals made by his statewide task force in February.

Task forces in Illinois, New York, North Carolina and South Carolina also released or continued work on growth reports and specific legislative proposals this year.
Several bills sit in the hopper with time yet to move in Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Michigan, New Hampshire, New Jersey, and Rhode Island.

Morandi says the popularity of growth legislation at the end of the 1990s and the changeover after the 2000 elections were two possible speed bumps delaying new action.

John Frece, Gov. Glendening’s special assistant for smart growth, says things may pick up again in the wake of a conference last weekend in Phoenix that brought together representatives of governors from 19 states to talk about strategies to curb sprawl.

Meantime, the cogs keep turning in his state’s smart growth machine. Glendening and Planning Secretary Harriet Tregoning are quick to point out that they have yet to channel the development tide, but there’s no question they love to talk about towns like Easton.

State planning department spokeswoman Kristen Forsyth says even if the gas plant doesn’t pan out as the site for the new social services building, “we’re confident that we can find a site downtown.”

Cathy Mols isn’t the only one anxious to stretch out in new quarters. Talbot County council members are shopping around for new offices and have their eyes on new digs over a mile away from the 325 year-old courthouse downtown. “I’m just a small piece of what has become a larger issue for a county that’s growing,” she said.

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