This commentary letter was published in the Hartford Courant in an abbreviated version 5/25/03:

Where Should "Smart” People Live?
William H. Ethier

Floating through the halls of the Connecticut General Assembly, right up until the very end of the 2003 legislative session, was a bill that outlined how and where Connecticut is to grow. House Bill 6640, An Act Concerning Smart Growth, was the latest version of land use management legislation supported by a collection of interests who are disenchanted by existing development patterns.

 

To counter the dumb growth that, in their view, has occurred in our state, the hope underlying this bill is to get more people to live in "smart growth,” defined as compact, transit accessible, pedestrian-oriented, mixed use development where infrastructure already exists. While the market for this type of development has been underserved, this bill did not live up to its seductive title. It’s hard for politicians to be against anything smart, but the devil is in the details and the details do not measure up.

 

The bill included numerous disjointed ideas that will not lead to more compact growth because they ignore the power of people to choose where they want to live. The bill also included new process delays in how land use is planned at the local level and revolutionary changes in how state funding for infrastructure and local services that support development is to be doled out. It limited these state funds, with certain exceptions, by creating priority funding areas ("PFAs”). State financial resources are focused toward PFAs in the hope that the marketplace will return to the cities and inner ring suburbs. You see, smart growth advocates believe that current development patterns, derisively termed sprawl, is the cause of urban decline, although in reality it’s the other way around.

 

The bill’s supporters also claim that it will provide more certainty for developers. Greater certainty is a treasured goal of any developer but the argument is based on the assumption that existing urban and inner suburban neighborhoods will accept greater density – the intended consequence of smart growth. And here is where cognitive dissonance takes over, that human psychological ability to adhere to two mutually exclusive thoughts. People complain about sprawl but are unwilling to accept higher density, sprawl’s only alternative short of stopping all growth, which would be economic and social suicide.

 

While more compact, urban style development is desired by some and, therefore, should be built for this market, it is not for everyone. In fact, the majority of people – the dumb growth folks? – still want a suburban or even rural lifestyle and demonstrate their desire by living as far out as they can reasonably drive to work. These areas would likely be outside the PFAs envisioned by House Bill 6640, raising the local cost of infrastructure and other services required of the market that wants to live there.

 

Outside the PFAs, housing also will become more expensive and will weigh more heavily on a person’s ability to move or their decision to take a job in Connecticut. Homes are where jobs go at night and higher housing costs will hurt business growth. Higher housing costs in non-PFA areas also will further spread the growing income gap between the suburban well-off and the urban poor.

 

Some smart growth advocates argue that we must refocus development toward the cities to avoid "paving over” Connecticut or becoming a "wall-to-wall suburb.” But these claims fly in the face of reality. The argument resonates with people who see new development in many places they go. But, of course, we all "go” along our highways and roads, physically where development must occur. Unless you get up in a plane or go out for a hike in the woods you would not see the vast amount of forests and fields behind the development.

 

In fact, the most recent U.S. Natural Resource Inventory data shows Connecticut with 5,543 square miles, made up of 699 sq. miles of water and 4,845 sq. miles of land. Of our total land area, this inventory shows 28% is developed, leaving 72% percent undeveloped and the vast majority of the developed area (92%) is considered urban. {Postscript: The land cover data released by UCONN in January 2004 shows that in 1985 Connecticut was 16.3% developed while 17 years later in 2002 the state was 18.7% developed.} Thus, the numbers simply do not support the unfettered sprawl rhetoric. Along with our meager rates of new housing growth – we’re building less than half the number of homes that were built in the 1980s – Connecticut’s bucolic landscape is not threatened.

 

Finally, some smart growth proponents complain about the lack of leadership in the legislature and from the Governor on these land use issues. But both legislative leaders and the Governor led the way to purchase more open space in the last few years than the previous twenty-five combined. They have made substantial efforts to encourage development of previously contaminated property, another smart growth goal. And they have made massive investments in our cities. While some argue whether those investments are prudent, the intention is to revitalize our cities, which is a central smart growth theme. Meanwhile, our towns willingly use the ample tools already at their disposal to deny or shape development and protect our landscapes. Anyone who says towns need more tools to control development has never been a housing developer.

 

Smart growth developments should be supported to serve the marketplace that wants it. However, rather than force adverse consequences on the entire marketplace, Connecticut needs simple policy incentives and land use process changes so developers will design and build, and municipalities will approve, these developments. Many such ideas have been offered to the legislature but - at least to date - they don’t have sufficient allure to excite the pro smart growth forces. When all is said and done, smart growth proposals will work only when they recognize the wants and needs of the marketplace because only people (not planners, the government or builders) choose where they want to live, work, shop and play.

 

William H. Ethier, CAE, is the CEO of the Home Builders & Remodelers Association of Connecticut and was a member of the Hartford Courant's Place board of contributors. He’s been a land use and environmental attorney since the mid-1980s.

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