Curbing sprawl: smart growth catches on in the South

October 13, 1998|By Neal R. Peirce

TENNESSEE, a state few expected would have the moxie, has jumped into the forefront of states requiring strong growth-management plans of its cities and counties.

A recently passed law there defies conventional political logic. Tennessee joins a small group of states willing to consider the idea of curbing home builders, preserving forests and meadows and stopping a big box retailer from occupying the cheapest cornfield his cash can buy.

In much of the nation, the very thought of government control on land use has been anathema. The top growth-management states to date have been Oregon and Washington. More modest growth restraints are in place in Vermont, Maine, Delaware, Minnesota, New Jersey, Florida, Rhode Island and Georgia.

Two years ago, at the urging of Gov. Parris N. Glendening, the Maryland General Assembly passed a landmark law telling local governments that the state will withhold, or at least sharply limit, any subsidies for new roads, sewers or schools for territory outside state-designated "smart growth" areas.

Tennessee has improved on Maryland's smart growth plan with a law not only discouraging unwise growth but also mandating a sophisticated local planning process to sidetrack sprawling development before it's even proposed.

By mid-2001, each Tennessee city and county will have to agree on an urban growth boundary to guide its development for the next 20 years. It will have to produce a unified design for how the community will develop. It must show it's encouraging a path of compact and contiguous high-density development into its planned growth areas -- while protecting valuable agricultural, forest, recreation and wildlife management areas.

A new plan

What's more, cities and counties must get together and figure how to make their growth patterns dovetail and agree on joint plans. Where they hit major disagreements, the law sets up an arbitration process to resolve differences.

The new Tennessee statute is so tough that local governments that fail to agree on an approved growth plan will face sudden termination of all their state subsidies for highways, community development, even tourism.

It sounds like a planner's dream. It was. The Tennessee legislature was obliged to create a committee to rewrite the state's annexation laws after the state's Supreme Court declared a 1997 annexation statute unconstitutional. Sam Edwards and Bill Terry, leaders of the Tennessee chapter of the American Planning Association, saw their opportunity and presented the committee with growth-management provisions that would dovetail with annexation reform.

The principle is simple enough: It will be fairly easy for cities to annex land within urban growth boundaries. It will be close to impossible if the territory they want lies outside.

To move the legislation forward, the planners had to develop close relations with the committee's co-chairman, state Sen. Robert Rochelle, and then line up support from such diverse groups as the Tennessee Farm Bureau, the Tennessee Association of Counties, the Sierra Club and, at the last minute, the Tennessee Municipal League. Collectively, these groups were sufficient to overcome determined resistance from the Tennessee Home Builders.

Even then, the measure almost died when the Tennessee House passed a bill deleting all the growth-management provisions. But the Senate stuck to its guns and the final version, signed by Gov. Don Sundquist, contains almost all the growth-management provisions. Many incorporate language right out of the APA's legislative guidebook for its national "Growing Smart" project.

Compromises were made in the bill to please farmers and soften home builders' opposition. Implementation will depend on quality technical assistance and encouragement from the state capital. But the planners believe, justifiably, that they've achieved "a great leap forward."

A big imponderable is emerging from the Tennessee story: Could it happen elsewhere? Is there an incipient coalition of urban and farm, municipal and county forces, beginning to see the light on growth management? And how about the planners? For decades, they've not been seen as a significant legislative force. Many APA members working for local governments have let bad sprawl development proceed without a murmur of protest.

Sprawl backlash

But for the past several years, stronger leadership and a sense of vision have been emerging in the APA. The "Growing Smart" guidelines call specifically for compact and contiguous growth, mixes of housing for people of all income groups and conserving area cultural and historical treasures. Polls and surveys show increasing support for such principles. Revulsion with sprawl, a desire for strengthened neighborhoods and communities, is mounting across America.

So if the planners want what Americans increasingly want, why shouldn't progressive reforms like Tennessee's (and Maryland's) make it into legislative agendas in more and more states?

Just maybe, this is a cause whose time has come.

Neal R. Peirce is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 10/13/98

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