Sprawl control now key political issue

November 15, 1998|By Neal R. Peirce

THE NOV. 3 elections weren't just a reversal of midterm trends, the undoing of a House speaker and impeachment defused.

They also marked the coming of age of sprawl control and "smart growth" as mainstream issues in American politics.

From New England to California, growth competed with, and in many races eclipsed, the familiar tax, spending, education and crime issues.

Vice President Al Gore, barnstorming the country for Democratic candidates, focused on land conservation, farmland preservation and spending highway dollars to serve city development instead of sprawl.

'Smart growth'

Gov. Parris N. Glendening, author of Maryland's pioneering "smart growth" legislation to deny state road and school funding for development spilling into the open countryside, swept to a 56-to-44 percent victory over Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey, who he'd barely defeated in 1994.

And it wasn't just his victory, Mr. Glendening told me: "In both the Maryland primary and general election, voters expressed dissatisfaction with sprawl by defeating candidates they thought had done or would do too little about controlling growth. That's a fundamental shift."

Democrats weren't alone in seizing the growth issue. In two Northern Virginia counties -- Prince William and Fauquier -- upstart Republican candidates rode to victory by calling Democratic opponents soft on growth.

The elections marked a "banner year for capital investments in green infrastructure," reports Phyllis Myers of State Resource Strategies in Washington, D.C. Her survey of 200-plus ballot measures nationwide indicated $7 billion worth of new government financing, including a likely $3 billion under the Florida land conservation bonding authority made permanent by the voters Nov. 3 and strongly supported by Republican governor-elect Jeb Bush.

Conventional park and recreation proposals did well, but so did land conservation measures triggered by dissatisfaction over formless low-density development, resource loss, traffic gridlock and rising taxes tied to fast growth.

Prime example: New Jersey, America's most urbanized state, where voters heeded the urgent pleas of Republican Gov. Christine Todd Whitman to preserve at least half of Jersey's remaining 2 million acres of farmland and forest against oncoming tides of strip malls, subdivisions and office parks.

And the margin was overwhelming -- 68 percent in favor of Ms. Whitman's proposal to spend close to $1 billion over the next decade to finance bond issues to buy endangered lands outright or pay owners to give up development rights.

"While we want development and we need construction, we can be smarter about it than the way we've done," Ms. Whitman said. "People across the country are realizing that the time to save land is when we still have it, not bemoan it once it's gone."

Voters in all 15 towns of Barnstable County, on Cape Cod, agreed. Under a new Massachusetts law, they approved a local-option 3-percent property tax assessment to finance community land banks. The state will match their funding. In Austin, Texas, voters went for $76 million in park and greenway bonds, part of a smart growth initiative to protect sensitive areas.

Conserving land

Land conservation programs were extended statewide in Minnesota, Michigan and Arizona. Rhode Islanders voted $15 million for parks and open space.

Some proposals failed -- notably taxes to finance a new land and wildlife fund in Georgia, and a $620,000 bond issue for endangered species habitat in New Mexico.

The sprawl debate is clearly in midcourse in perennially growth-happy Arizona. An extraordinarily tough Citizens Growth Management Initiative -- imposing mandatory urban growth limits around every city and town -- failed to get enough ballot signatures.

But the attempted initiative so upset Arizona's political and business establishment that the legislature passed a "Growing Smarter Act." It bars urban growth boundaries but sets up a special governor's commission, where citizens and developers are to work out long-term growth management guidelines.

Sweeping anti-growth measures can risk defeat at the hands of heavy campaign-spending land owners and farmers interested in selling their land for development -- the fate that befell a proposal to restrict subdivision of 600,000 acres in eastern San Diego County. But growth boundaries and a farmland protection zone were approved in four San Francisco Bay localities, bringing to 15 the number of growth boundary jurisdictions there.

In Ventura County, north of Los Angeles, four out of five localities voted "yes" on urban growth boundaries. SOAR, the grass-roots growth-control coalition that pushed those measures, now vows to turn into a permanent land conservation advocate.

Will practical policies to support land conservation appear? Perhaps. In Maryland, Mr. Glendening says the next smart growth step must be "smart transportation," recognizing -- "no pun intended," he insists -- "that roads often drive sprawl, that we need to make transit a realistic alternative to people who otherwise would drive."

Historically, anti-growth pressure has subsided in economic downturns. But with choice land scarcer and traffic ever denser, the best bet now is that the growth issue will only intensify.

Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.

Pub Date: 11/15/98

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