Stateline Story

New Report Details State Growth Strategies

For a growing number of governors, the conversion of open space to suburban houses and office parks illustrates a lesson that fictional Iowa farmer Ray Kinsella first learned in the film Field of Dreams: If you build it, they will come. 

But the lesson is more complicated for governors because it is less about "if" than "where" to channel the growth that they recognize is inevitable. Rather than building diamonds for ballplaying ghosts, they see themselves building both an economically prosperous and aesthetically rewarding future for their residents, according to a report benchmarking state land use policies released this week by the research wing of the National Governor's Association.

"We're not talking about cutting down growth but about reshaping ... and changing the style of growth, and that is what's appealing to elected officials and the general public," said the report's author, Joel H. Hirschhorn, an engineer and environmental consultant who directs natural resources policy studies for NGA's Center for Best Practices .

Sixty percent of Americans live in suburban neighborhoods, and now 60 percent of the nation's office space is located there, too, up from 25 percent in 1970. That may work well for some commuters now, the report suggests, but as people continue to back away from sprawl, it will leapfrog after them with harsh consequences for the quality of life. from his home in Ohio.

"It seems to me that the NGA report has missed a fundamental point: The character of the city has changed dramatically over the last 50 years. The city of the Digital Age looks much more like the suburbs than the traditional central city," Staley said.

The 68-page study, Growing Pains: Quality of Life in the New Economy is the latest of a series of NGA reports examining state efforts to adjust policy in preparation for the New Economy, said CBP director John Thomasian.

It argues that the most obvious negative results of traditional growth patterns -- traffic congestion, strained public services, skyrocketing rural property taxes, thickening pollution, sustained urban decay and the loss of open space -- are essentially economic and quality-of-life issues and that states are uniquely positioned to respond to them.

"Unless something is done to preserve quality of life, growth today will stifle growth tomorrow." Natural resources have a high economic value of their own, Hirschhorn said.

"Companies are going to go where the workers want to go," and cautious steps taken today to set parameters on subdivision development and to revive urban centers are the best bet for striking a balance between sustained economic growth and protecting valuable natural resources, he said.

To illustrate Hirschhorn's point, Thomasian pointed to www.michigan.org , the Web Site of the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, which emphasizes quality of life as the main reason for people to travel, seek a career or do business in Michigan. He characterized the site as indicative of state officials' efforts to connect economic development with the easy availability of natural and cultural amenities.

The Michigan site is but one of several dozen ways in which states have begun to take up the challenge, the report shows. Over half the nation's governors addressed growth issues in their state of the state speeches and budget addresses earlier this year. The new report outlines three basic roles for governors: as public educators, as leading shapers of state spending priorities, and as mediators in the development of regional growth strategies that move beyond the limitations of local government.

Among the successes of recent years featured in the NGA report are:

  • Georgia's Regional Transportation Authority, as an example of leadership and public education. Rallying lawmakers and citizens to tackle the problems of congestion and air pollution around Greater Atlanta during his inaugural state-of-the state in 1999, Gov. Roy Barnes told Georgians, "Either you help me do something now or this boomtown known as Atlanta becomes a ghost town. And if our growth stops here, it stops everywhere in the state."
  • Shaping Delaware's Future, a 1995 report revised last December outlining 11 statewide growth management goals. The report and its revision were the work of Gov. Tom Carper's Cabinet Committee on State Planning Issues, a panel of the heads of seven state agencies chaired by Carper's chief of staff. In April, Illinois Gov. George Ryan established a very similar Balanced Growth Cabinet. Both states pointedly seek out local public input.
  • Maryland's "priority funding areas" -- downtown business districts and urban residential cores that since 1998 have received first consideration for state assistance to develop housing, transportation and public services. "Smart codes," enacted in April, also channel development back to urban cores by relaxing costly building standards intended for new construction. Local governments are not required to participate in either program, but understand that they will lose vital state funds if they opt out.

The report, released nationally at a National Press Club luncheon in Washington D.C. Wednesday, was also released at home by several governors whose states were featured. At one presentation on the farm of Vance Morris near Bowers Beach, Del., Gov. Tom Carper, who chairs NGA's Center, noted that shifting economic conditions during his eight-year administration have allowed many governors to turn from economic resuscitation to a focus on the economic benefits of husbanding natural resources.

"In 1992, we were just coming out of recession and there was a lot of concern [among governors] about unemployment, ... budgets that were very tight and taxes that were high ... The issues that people discuss today when governors gather aren't so much those issues anymore. You know what they talk about? They talk about ... how we can have a strong economy, create jobs and at the same time not destroy our open space," he said.

Delaware's farmland preservation program , featured in the report as the centerpiece of the state's land use policy, has preserved over 37,000 acres permanently and has another 100,000 acres set aside for ten years while they are reviewed for permanent preservation.

With rain pattering softly on the tin roof of Morris's machine shed and gray clouds rolling out to sea, Carper closed the ceremony by asking people to "just be quiet and listen."

"Isn't that a peaceful sound? My hope is that some of what we are doing will keep ... farming ... in the economic mainstream of our state for a long time," he said.

Morris, a retired Delaware farmer who sold the development rights of his 866-acre farm to the state so that it will be kept permanently in agriculture, agreed with the governor.

"We didn't ever plan to grow houses on this land," he said.