Steal Tom Wolf's Sprawl-Stopping Ideas From the Year 2000


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Democratic frontrunner Tom Wolf doesn't talk about sprawl and land use issues a lot on the campaign trail, but he is actually on the record with a detailed policy agenda in this area. Back in 2000 he "played the lead role in drafting" the section "Reduce Suburban Sprawl" in the Keystone Research Center's Steal This Agenda report. This is a bit more explicit than what's in his current campaign policy document, but many of the same themes are still there - themes that echo what Geoff wrote in an open letter to President Obama proposing a Race to the Top for urban policy - and this should give us some clues as to how he'd approach these issues if he became Governor. 

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During the past few years, Pennsylvanians from across the political spectrum have come to see suburban sprawl as a serious threat to the Commonwealth's quality of life. To many, the consequences of sprawl are confined to the inconveniences of driving on crowded roads or the loss of aesthetically pleasing landscapes. But the movement of population and economic development away from older communities ñ which gives rise to suburban sprawl ó has also had more devastating impact on the lives of millions of Pennsylvanians.

It has:

· destroyed their neighborhoods, cities, and small towns;

· eroded the value of their homes;

· concentrated poverty in older communities;

· stressed urban schools, raising the challenges for educators while robbing them of the financial resources they need to address those challenges;

· produced unequal tax burdens between cities and suburbs;

· wasted existing infrastructure (roads, sewers, water, electricity, and telecommunications) and required expensive new infrastructure in outlying, low-density developments;

· made it less likely that businesses - spread out over larger land areas, their managers unlikely to meet by chance downtown - will come together to create the workforce and technology infrastructure of a high-road economy; and

· accelerated the loss of open space, damaging wildlife habitats and increasing pressure on the state's aquifers. (The population of Pennsylvaniaís 10 largest metropolitan areas grew by only 13 percent from 1970 to 1990, but their land area grew by 80 percent.)

There is no evidence yet that a strong economy has done anything but slightly retard the decline of cities and older suburbs in Pennsylvania. About half of Pennsylvaniaís major urban schools districts, for example, lost substantial ground in the 1990s compared to the rest of the state measured by personal income per pupil.

Any attempt to reduce sprawl must reform public policies that today reinforce the outward flow of population and economic development. The General Assembly has begun to address this issue by encouraging voluntary regional planning. But much more remains to be done. Pennsylvania should adopt the following policy changes, each of which has been implemented in at least one other state.

1. Regionalize the land use planning system.

Planning for growth cannot be effectively carried out within individual municipalities, especially in a state like Pennsylvania, where municipalities are generally very small and cannot view the needs of a region comprehensively. This regional perspective is especially important in improving our ability to assess environmental impacts of development, to set regional infrastructure investment priorities, and to stem the decline of established communities. Building on existing legislation, counties or, in the case of multi-county metropolitan areas, groups of counties, should be required to establish elected regional planning councils.

The state should use planning and infrastructure grants to municipalities to encourage municipal compliance with the councilsí plans.

2. Change zoning ordinances and planning codes to allow mixed-use (commercial and residential), high-density, mixed-price communities.

Encouraging the inclusion of low- and moderate-income housing in all new develop ments helps counter the concentration of poverty. Mixed-use zoning can also combat sprawl by reducing the distance between homes, workplaces, and shopping areas.

3. Establish urban growth boundaries.

As Oregon has shown, urban growth boundaries are a powerful tool for reorienting development inward. Regional planning councils could determine the location of the growth boundaries in their counties or metropolitan areas.

4. Use state public infrastructure investment strategies to encourage the redevelopment of cities and small towns.

Public infrastructure policies today subsidize sprawl by allowing residents of new outlying developments to pay the same rates for sewer and water systems as urban residents. The bias of federal transportation funds towards highways and against mass transit also contributes to sprawl. Following the lead of Maryland's Smart Growth Initiative, Pennsylvania should reverse the bias of past infrastructure spending and use state infrastructure funds to encourage the redevelopment of cities and established towns.

5. Reduce differences in tax rates and promote regional tax-base sharing.

At present, large disparities exist between the tax rates of established communities and those of newer suburbs. Pennsylvania could do much to eliminate this growing disparity - and slow the departure of upper income residents from struggling communities - by raising the state government's share of public education funding.

Regional tax-base sharing would also help reduce fiscal disparities between municipalities. Under regional tax-base sharing, municipalities within each county or metropolitan area would be required to contribute part of the growth in their commercial and industrial property tax bases to a regional pool distributed in ways that alleviate intra-regional disparities. Municipalities with rapid commercial or industrial growth would, therefore, contribute some of the fruits of that growth to their slowergrowing or declining neighbors.

The latter, typically urban centers or older suburbs, would gain extra revenues that they could use to improve services, cut taxes, or both. By improving services and/or cutting taxes in urban and older suburban areas, regional tax base sharing could help stem the vicious circle of decline that depopulates older communities.

Sprawl is neither smart nor right. We need to reform the laws that reinforce it. Above all, we need to ensure that patterns of growth support strong communities and a high quality of life for all Pennsylvanians.



Last Updated: Friday, 16 May 2014 @ 15.36
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jongeeting's picture Jon Geeting About the Author:

Jon Geeting is a Philadelphia-based freelance journalist and policy researcher. His writing also appears at Next City, Primary Colors, and Keystone Politics, where he covers politics and elections, land use and transportation, and urban economic policy. He also writes a monthly Political Machine column at Philly City Paper.