Stateline Story

States Giving Anti-Growth Measures High Priority

Evidence of sprawl, and its repercussions, are everywhere.

As in strip malls that multiply like kudzu, skyrocketing homeowners fees and assessments and water cooler gripes about hour-plus commutes from hell. Voters exercised over sprawl-related issues are bending the ears of their state representatives, pushing once low-priority land-use legislation near the top of many states' political agendas for 2000.

Ray Sheppach, executive director of the National Governor's Association, and William Pound, who heads the National Conference of State Legislatures, have placed sprawl on the short list of key issues facing states this year.

Governors began talking about "smart growth" during their 1998 state of the state speeches and haven't stopped since.

State lawmakers are also responding, driven by constituents' calls and armed with statistics such as recent U.S. Census Bureau projections for the coming century. The new figures lend a sense of urgency to the quest for solutions.

Census officials predict that the nation's population of 275 million will more than double over the next 100 years, but raw statistics can sometimes be misleading.

The United States' population density is only two-thirds of the global average and the Department of Transportation classifies a mere 3.1 percent of the nation's land as developed urban area.

Meaning that sprawl is "a classic grassroots issue," says Larry Morandi, an NCSL senior analyst. In other words, the voices of constituents speak louder than mere numbers.

In November 1998, voters passed 72 percent of 240 growth initiatives proposed nationwide, according to land-use expert Phyllis Myers. That was the beginning of a sprint to define states' roles in setting land-use policy in several categories, including growth management, transportation and the environment.

State priorities in 2000 will center on finding common ground for the factions battling over growth management -- environmentalists, homebuilders, local officials, business owners and historic preservationists, to name a few. Further complicating the picture for states is the need to handle growing costs associated with transportation and environmental protection.

Growth Management

In the past, growth management was traditionally a local issue. Phyllis Myers found that as recently as 1998, only 13 ballot proposals (5.4 percent) concerned statewide policy.

That year, voters authorized spending $7.5 billion on open space preservation, park enhancements, environmental cleanup, and the establishment of urban growth boundaries. A lighter round of initiatives in off-year elections last November added roughly $2.5 billion more. The magnitude of the funding underscored the need for a regional approach uniting the efforts of cities and counties.

NCSL analyst Morandi sees four general trends in state growth management legislation:

  • Further dedication of state funds to preserve open space from development.
  • Incentive-based legislation that encourages the donation of land and easements in open areas, as well as redevelopment to promote economically viable downtowns.
  • Programs like Maryland's benchmark 1997 Smart Growth package that use state economic development assistance as leverage to ensure adherence to long-term local growth plans.
  • A movement to encourage regional cooperation among municipalities with common economic and environmental interests.

The state of Colorado, where a recent poll indicated 83 percent of citizens see growth as a vital problem, went after these objectives with gusto. Legislators introduced 10 growth-related bills the first day of the 2000 session, and observers initially predicted as many as 40 more would appear before the session ends in May. Republican Gov. Bill Owens outlined his own "smart growth" agenda during his state of the state address.

However, thus far Colorado's experience has been instructive mainly for the way bill after bill has died in committee hearings. Colorado environmentalists and developers want firmer municipal growth plans and broader regional uniformity, but city, township and county leaders view those wishes as encroaching on their authority. The skirmishing prompted the state Senate to scuttle a bill seen as the centerpiece of the growth-control push.

Growth management is forward-looking public policy that generates strong sentiment pro and con. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge discovered this when he drew plaudits from local leaders and brickbats from homebuilders by proposing growth boundaries and new restrictions on zoning appeals.

That hasn't stemmed a nationwide tidal wave of land-use legislation, however.

In New Jersey, preserving green space is the crown jewel of the Garden State's closely observed growth-management strategy. In 1998, Republican Gov. Christine Todd Whitman led a celebrated effort to set aside $98 million dollars a year, over a 10-year period, for land purchases. That led to a constitutional amendment carving money from existing sales tax revenues to achieve Whitman's objective.

In Arizona, where in 1998 voters approved spending $220 million on open space acquisition, a recent survey indicated that three in four residents favor a constitutional change similar to New Jersey's. Connecticut law requires the gradual preservation of 21 percent of state land and sets aside several thousand acres per year toward that goal.

Agricultural preservation has taken root in Ohio, where farmers may now sell or donate farmland to public entities. Several other states are now considering similar legislation.

States Sweetening the Growth-Control Pot

A big trend among states has been to offer inducements designed to move sprawl-related projects forward.

NCSL lists 38 states that have enacted or are considering incentive-based growth management legislation. These laws come with lures ranging from tax credits for individual land donors and urban redevelopers to matching funds for non-profits and local governments seeking to incorporate preservation into their planning strategies.

Florida enables local governments that adopt urban infill and redevelopment plans to issue community redevelopment revenue bonds. A bill before a joint committee in Maine offers state funds to localities that develop only in designated areas equipped to accommodate growth.

Maryland has shown itself equally adroit at using the carrot or the stick. The Free State withholds state funds from projects inconsistent with established local plans, but also provides funds to local governments and non-profit land trusts for easements, land purchases and development rights.

Federal Initiatives

The federal government has shown an activist bent when it comes to growth management. The Clinton administration's FY 2001budget earmarks $1.4 billion to fund open space preservation and wildlife protection and $9.3 billion for Vice President Al Gore's "Livable Communities" initiative, which aims to grow communities in ways that enhance quality and strong economies.

Administration officials have reaffirmed their support for local priorities and federal aid in land-policy decisions.

"The latest Department of Agriculture figures show that the loss of farmland and other open space more than doubled through the 1990s. Communities across the country are taking action to save the best of what's left, and the federal government must help," Clinton told Stateline.org last month.

Predictably, states often bridle at federal land-use directives.

Arizona Gov. Jane Hull recently blasted Clinton's move to set aside millions of acres for the creation and expansion of national monument lands in Arizona and California. The governor argued that land-use decisions are state and local matters with important consequences for economic development and raising revenue.

Separate actions pit Idaho and Montana against the U.S. Forest Service and its effort to ban roads in over 9 million acres of national forest. Idaho and Montana are seeking court orders preventing the Forest Service from proceeding with environmental impact studies.

Transportation and the Environment

The challenge for state transportation and environmental officials will be to forge efficient solutions in an era where more of the financial burden for those areas is being shifted to states.

John Horsley, executive director of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, says states are moving to complement the federal government's rising financial commitment to transportation improvements. He singled out Illinois, Florida and South Carolina as having authorized massive transportation projects to accelerate projected highway improvements.

In Georgia, Gov. Roy Barnes has installed a mass transit authority in the Atlanta area, where officials will weigh the costs and benefits of investments of rural road development and an intercity high-speed railway.

Illinois FIRST, Gov. George Ryan's $12 billion infrastructure package, emphasizes transportation improvements and directs the state department of transportation to impose safeguards that ensure environmental protection.

And Virginia is looking at proposed regional taxes to support new road construction, intercity rail links and passenger ferries across the Potomac.

Obviously, state environmental agendas tend to reflect state-specific concerns. Mining issues preoccupy West Virginia. Wetlands protection is important to states adjoining coasts and the major river valleys.

In the Midwest and Plains states, new regulations are being sought for the poultry and swine industries, while opposition to federal nuclear waste storage in Western states such as Nevada, Utah and Wyoming is a top environmental priority in that region.

While states are relative neophytes in the area of growth management, they've long done "most of the traditional environmental work in this country", says Robert E. Roberts, executive director of the Environmental Council of States.

Senior Intern Dave Avitabile contributed to this report.