Smarter' law pleases anti-sprawl activists
Three years ago, then-Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge traveled
to a picturesque farm in Chester County for a bill-signing
ceremony for "Growing Smarter," his administration's
effort to help communities fight sprawl and preserve open
The legislation has been working in ways that pleasantly
surprise even the most ardent anti-sprawl activists by
providing financial assistance to municipalities that
work together on joint land-use and zoning plans.
Although development continues unabated in many parts
of Pennsylvania, there are at least 160 joint planning
efforts under way, involving 620 municipalities, according
to statistics compiled by the Governor's Center for Local
Government Services. That means that fully one-quarter
of the state's cities, boroughs and townships are working
together to control and direct development.
Their efforts could begin bearing fruit in a few years.
Once enacted, these plans will direct housing, industrial
and commercial development to communities that want it
- such as older towns desperate for tax revenue to support
aging infrastructure - and away from communities that
don't, land-use experts say.
The law has worked "beyond our wildest dreams in
terms of the number of communities that have actually
taken advantage of the new tools and authority,"
said Janet Milkman, executive director of 10,000 Friends
of Pennsylvania, a conservation group.
Though elected officials have historically been reluctant
to cede any control over local zoning matters, Thomas
Hylton, chairman of the Pottstown Planning Commission
and an expert on sprawl, said he's witnessed a "dramatic
change" in attitudes toward cooperative planning.
Before the legislation was signed, there were only a
handful of communities working on joint zoning plans,
"It's becoming an economic issue. We are going to
either build new infrastructure or start fixing up the
infrastructure we already have," said Hylton, Pulitzer
Prize-winning author of "Save Our Land, Save Our
This week, Lancaster County launched the biggest joint
planning effort in the state, encompassing 12 communities,
200 square miles and 200,000 people. The area includes
the city of Lancaster and surrounding boroughs and townships.
Lancaster is home to some of the most valuable farmland
in the nation, but it's also become heavily urbanized,
an important center of magazine printing and metal and
wood fabrication. The goal of the plan will be to strike
a balance between these competing interests, said Ron
Bailey, chairman of the Lancaster County Planning Commission.
"How do we accommodate all the growth and continue
to keep it an economically prosperous place while at the
same time not allowing farmland to be needlessly converted
to other uses?" he said.
When Upper Salford Township Supervisor Ted Poatsy surveyed
his community from a private airplane last year, he was
alarmed at what he saw - housing and commercial development
had already gobbled up much of adjoining Lower Salford
and was approaching the township line.
He said Upper Salford, a sparsely populated township
about 30 miles northwest of Philadelphia, wants to retain
its rural feel. That's why it has joined with five other
municipalities as the Indian Valley Regional Planning
"We like to be a quiet, sleepy bedroom community
with not a lot of houses. In (neighboring) Telford and
Souderton, they already have high density. They already
have public sewers," Poatsy said. "By combining
everybody's resources, we have a stronger hand to fight
Under state law, if a municipality has a zoning ordinance,
it must zone for all conceivable land uses, from high-density
housing development to retail businesses to heavy industry.
But communities that plan jointly can enact a master zoning
plan that puts development in the areas that make the
But not all municipalities are on board. Sustainable
Pittsburgh, a public policy group, said in a recent report
that many southwestern Pennsylvania jurisdictions continue
to work alone and often don't consider what's best for
Sustainable Pittsburgh Director Court Gould said that
while "Growing Smarter" is a decent start, planning
needs to take place on a regional level to be most effective.