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Great Lakes Article:

'Growing Smarter' law pleases anti-sprawl activists
Michael Rubinkam
Associated Press

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 space.

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, he noted.

"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 Towns."

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 Commission.

"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 developers."

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 most sense.

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 the region.

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.

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