What is Albany going to do about sprawl?

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Eye from Albany
December 2000

What is Albany going to do about sprawl?
By Paul M. Bray

What is the State Government in Albany going to do about sprawl is the question being asked as the Governor’s Quality Communities Interagency task force chaired by Lt. Governor Donohue ponders the question with a January 31st, 2001 deadline.

Since Democratic Assemblyman Sam Hoyt from Buffalo and Republican Senator Mary Lou Rath from Buffalo’s suburbs crossed party and city-suburban dividing lines to put sprawl control on the Albany agenda with smart growth legislation two years ago, we have been waiting to see if sprawl control has political legs in Albany.

The Hoyt-Rath legislation was a wake up call to the home builders, business and environmental communities that the tide of smart growth or sprawl control that was sweeping the nation could be for real in New York State. The legislation foundered over differences in approaches within the Assembly between Long Island and upstate and lack of leadership interest in both legislative houses. (Leadership in Albany is frequently an exercise in catch up.) It did have the affect of drawing stakeholders like Audubon Society and the Home Builders Association to meet and develop their own smart growth proposal and the legislature appropriated funds for locally generated smart growth pilot projects.

The ball shifted from the legislative to the Governor’s court during this last year as Governor Pataki created an Interagency Task Force chaired by Lt. Governor Donohue to produce recommendations for sprawl control. (Just so you know, quality communities is the Governor’s politically preferred name for smart growth which in turn is the politically preferred term for sprawl control.) The Task Force is intended to ‘focus on redeveloping urban center and older suburbs, preserving open space and agriculture and forest lands, protecting water and air resources, restoring and protecting New York’s waterfront areas in existing communities’.

With the Task Force’ State Commissioner members in toe, Donohue went on the road with hearings across the State and, as I am writing, she with staff from the Secretary of State and outside advisors should be drafting recommendations to the Governor.

When the recommendations come they can be judged by looking at them from the perspectives of the three areas of: local planning, regionalization and state priority funding policies to see if the Governor is serious about controlling sprawl.

For the most part except for the Adirondack Park communities which are subject to the State created Adirondack Park Agency, land use planning in New York State has been left to cities, towns and villages with only limited accountability to county, regional and statewide considerations. The State has done pitifully little to seek to reconcile local, regional and state interests in land use or even to assure that local governments meet any standard of competence when it comes to zoning and planning. Municipalities don’t even have to adopt or implement zoning and planning laws if they don’t want to act.

If the State is going to get serious, it needs to mandate that every city, town and village have certifiable local land use planning laws being administered within its boundaries. If a locality falls short, land use jurisdictions should be taken over by county or State. Incentives should also be provided for localities to adopt innovative laws like time and sequence controls to assure that development and supporting infrastructure proceed in step with each other.

Regionalism to reconcile local, regional and state interests mirrors today’s realities. Driving environmental considerations like water and air shed management and social and economic considerations don’t conform anymore to antiquated municipal boundaries. In regions like the Albany metro area, Saratoga county that is on the economic uptick tries to distance itself from the rest of its region. Conflicts over development proposals on municipal borders like the Ikea development that has driven the City of New Rochelle and Town of Mamaroneck into court are becoming more frequent.

The time is long overdue for the State to enact regional arrangements of communities across the State and with a mix of carrots and sticks foster reconciliation of local and regional interests. Participatory compact planning as found under the regional Hudson River Valley Greenway law offers an excellent model, but it needs to be jumped started by the State and State has been reluctant to do so.

Finally and of greatest importance will be what the Task Force recommends on priority funding areas. Public expenditures have fueled sprawl for decades by building the roads, helping to finance community water and sewers and financing mortgages. Instead of making an investment in cities as the rest of the world does, the Federal and State governments have helped create the conditions for public and private disinvestment in our cities. What smart growth means for states like Maryland that have embraced it is that state aid be directed away from projects that will foster sprawl over farmland and open space and towards refurbishing the public investment in urbanized areas.

Needless to say at first look it is a tall order for state political leaders like Governor Pataki to embrace when he is elected by a suburban majority that has so greatly benefited from the existing funding priorities. But the political calculus is changing in a number of ways.

The suburban majority is increasingly revolting against the traffic congestion and other impacts from abandoning the cities in favor of sprawl. Those living in the older inner suburbs that were created in the first generation of sprawl are finding the housing prices for their homes stagnant or falling. They are the newest victims of sprawl. And could it be that benefits of city living are be rediscovered’ Cities from Charleston to San Francisco are now coping with too much housing demand. When it comes to rediscovering city living, the public may again be ahead of the politicians.

If quality communities or sprawl control is going to be tackled from Albany, look for the Task Force to identify all the sprawl inducing State actions presently being undertaken and for a redirection of state aid to urban service areas encompassing traditional large and small cities and first generation suburbs and away from creating new suburban subdivisions and malls. In fact, protecting the State’s substantial investment in its urbanized area, cities and older suburbs makes good financial sense. Stay tuned to see if there is the political will to do what is right.