Visionary ‘Smart Growth’ Program Wins National Laurels

By: - November 19, 2002 12:00 am

The program uses classroom instruction, less formal workshops and the Internet to make people aware of how their communities will grow under current policies and how they can change those policies to get better results.

Launched under former Republican Gov. Paul Cellucci in 1999, the Massachusetts Community Preservation Initiative (CPI) started with an analysis of commercial and residential development patterns across the state.

Hundreds of data-gatherers studied local economies and population projections, tax structures and zoning laws. They also asked such questions as “can new housing be built affordably?” and “can the community afford the schools, water and sewage lines that will be needed to support a larger population?”

Then, with the help of several state agencies and 13 regional planning offices, they presented their findings to leaders of every city, town and village in the state.

Local governments received computer software illustrating the fiscal impact of doing nothing and alternatives at their disposal. They could compare apples-to-apples notes with the neighboring towns. Residents were given time to talk about what they like most about where they live and discuss their priorities for the future.

“I call this Sim City for municipal officials,” said state environmental secretary Robert Durand, alluding to a video game in which players create a city and support it through real-world challenges.

The information was put on the state’s Web site, which gets more than one thousand hits every day. All of this cost about 55 cents for every man, woman and child in Massachusetts, officials said

“The program opened a lot of eyes” and jump-started votes in several towns to tap into state money approved under a 1998 law for historic preservation, affordable housing and open space, CPI spokesman Doug Pizzi said.

CPI director Priscilla Geigis said the information is already shaping local land use choices. Hopkinton, a western suburb of Boston, increased lot sizes in one subdivision a move not typically consonant with “smart growth” as a way to preserve water quality in nearby Echo Lake. The town of Franklin, 22 miles southwest of Boston in the Interstate 495 corridor, changed its zoning to allow mixed-use development and increase its stock of affordable housing.

More than 200 Massachusetts communities have signed up to receive additional planning assistance from the state.

Officials of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency praise the Bay State program as a national model for community outreach, citing its adaptability to other states and its effective emphasis on education rather than regulations.

At Washington DC ceremony Monday, they awarded Massachusetts one of the agency’s first annual National Awards for Smart Growth Achievement . It was the only state to win an award.

As a former governor, I know first-hand how important leadership on growth issues can be at the state level,” said EPA administrator Christine Todd Whitman, a former governor of New Jersey.

Other awards recognized Arlington, Virginia, for the “urban villages” it has created around subway stations, an affordable Colorado neighborhood built on reclaimed mine land and San Mateo, California’s incentives for mixed-income housing near transit hubs.

Environmentalists also laud the Massachusetts program.

“This is an impressive project, a very powerful set of tools using current GIS (geographic information systems) technology and the Web,” said Deron Lovaas, a smart growth and transportation analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council who served on the EPA panel that judged more than 100 award applications.

“Most people don’t realize just what build-out looks like,” Lovaas said of the growth projections. “If they saw a map of it, they’d probably gasp.”

Shannon Goheen, a Cape Cod resident who attended one of the original community presentations, was also enthusiastic.

“I understood that what was going on around me had a name and that it was more than just me being frustrated,” said Goheen, who regularly attends free land-use planning courses offered at all five University of Massachusetts campuses.

Maine, New Hampshire and Rhode Island all have adopted parts of Massachusetts’ approach. And Lovaas believes the program has broader applicability.

“It would provide a real benefit for Northeastern and Midwestern states that have such fragmented governance. I would imagine this would be most useful to jurisdictions on the fringe” of today’s suburbs, he said.

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