Stateline Story

Policy Makers Walk Political Tightrope In Dealing With Sprawl

  • April 22, 1999
  • By Joseph Giordono

WASHINGTON - As state legislatures pause today, however briefly, to observe the twenty-ninth anniversary of Earth Day, government action on controlling growth and suburban sprawl has produced mixed results in the 1999 legislative sessions so far. While the Utah legislature, mindful of construction projects associated with the 2002 Winter Olympics, passed a Quality Growth Act at least minimally acceptable to all, Colorado lawmakers killed a sprawl measure for fear of stifling economic development. Maryland political observers say Governor Parris Glendening has tied his national political future to the issue, perhaps hoping to parlay his Smart Growth program into a presidential cabinet position.

With economies booming and cities swallowing once open spaces, urban sprawl and planned growth have leapt to the fore of hot button issues in the states. Vice President Al Gore has made the issue a centerpiece of his presidential campaign, launching a "Livable Communities Initiative" which asks Congress for almost $1 billion in federal money to preserve open space and farmlands.

Urban sprawlbroadly defined to include everything from strip malls to highway interchangeswas a major issue in last November's elections. There were more than 200 open space or environmental preservation initiatives on state ballots in the mid-term elections and more than 100 were approved, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

At a meeting of the National Governors' Association in February, Glendening said that policy makers should be prepared for political battles if they want to address sprawl.

"Everybody wants to go to heaven, but no one wants to die," Glendening said. "To get anything done on this issue, people are going to have to be willing to bend."

Glendening learned the political reality of controlling growth while trying to satisfy constituents at the same time. Earlier this year, he traveled to a small Maryland town to announce that the area would not be getting a highway bypass due to growth restrictions. Residents argued that the town's economic health should outweigh controlling sprawl.

"The governor doesn't want to see a high-visibility project like the bypass overturned as the first test case for Smart Growth," said state senator Christopher McCabe, one of Glendening's harshest critics on the issue.

Utah legislators faced similar political pressures this year in their efforts to pass the Utah Quality Growth Act. The main sticking points were resolved when supporters guaranteed that the Act provided no mandates, but only offered incentives for developers to build where growth could be tolerated.

The law creates a 13-member commission to review potential state incentives to developers who build in "quality growth areas." The commission will also administer a fund to buy conservation easements to prevent development in critical open spaces.

To further assuage opponents' fears, the law requires all state-funded conservation easements be held by a government agency instead of a nonprofit group. It also eliminates a hefty tax break for foundations wishing to donate to the preservation of open spaces.

Non-profit groups that want to manage land can still benefit under the new act, supporters said. They can partner with the government agency to buy an adjacent easement, doubling the size of a preserve.

Colorado lawmakers could not find a compromise on the sprawl issue, defeating a growth measure along party lines after acrimonious debate. Democrats were generally in favor of the proposal, Republicans opposed.

The proposed Responsible Growth Act would have required large, fast-growing counties to draft comprehensive growth plans, and would have required those governments to stick to the plans. The bill also would have established a procedure allowing landowners in rural areas to sell development rights to builders in urban areas, preserving farmland from development while allowing retiring farmers to cash in.

The bill never made it out of committee. Critics said it called for central planning and tried to slam the door on growth.

"The growth issue won't die. It may die in this committee, but it won't die in Colorado," said bill sponsor Sen. Bryan Sullivant.

Sullivant managed to salvage a legislative study of the issue and the Colorado Public Interest Research Group has promised to put the issue to a statewide fall referendum.

Momentum for addressing the sprawl issue has pushed the South Carolina General Assembly to act on growth for the first time. A legislative study committee was formed to explore the subject and is expected to recommend legislation next year.

According to a study conducted by the South Carolina Budget and Control Board, South Carolina governments spent and will spend up to $57 billion to extend services to new development between 1995 and 2015. The study said urban sprawl will account for about $2.7 billion, a figure based on congestion, distance and other econometric calculations.

The committee is expected to recommend limiting public money for roads, schools and sewer pipes that extend urban areas farther into the countryside.

Virginia lawmakers, used to dealing with the growth problems of the District of Columbia, heard from the other side of the debate in a hearing last month with business leaders from the Northern Virginia suburbs of D.C.

The Assembly convened a special joint House-Senate committee to analyze a number of growth-control measures that will come up in next year's session. The public meeting was held in Loudoun County, which is the state's fastest-growing jurisdiction and has been struggling to pay for 22 new schools to be built over the next six years.

Before the meeting, a group of business executives announced the formation of a coalition that will work to block growth control measures while pushing the state to provide income-tax revenue or other money to finance schools and pay for roads.

"Stopping the growth or limiting residential development will not solve our challenges. The companies that have located or plan to locate here need a variety of housing for their employees. They also need quality schools and a good transportation system," said James W. Hazel, spokesman for the business group, in a statement to the committee.

Anti-tax and growth control activists countered that localities should have more authority to charge developers fees for each house built, or to restrict development in areas that have inadequate roads and schoolsmeasures that were rejected by the Virginia General Assembly last session.

Activists argued that localities are, in effect, subsidizing developers by forcing taxpayers to finance new schools and other services required by growth. They oppose the idea of sending state income tax dollars back to localities and argue that developers should pay instead.

With no end in sight to the prolonged economic boom spurring growth, it is a debate likely to be played out in statehouses across the nation for some time to come.