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PLACE

Time To Renew The Fight Against Sprawl

Tom Condon

5:05 PM EST, February 27, 2013

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In March of 2003, the demographer Myron Orfield warned that Connecticut, despite its wealth, was not on a path for healthy growth.

Orfield was the principal author of "Connecticut Metropatterns — A Regional Agenda for Community and Prosperity in Connecticut." The study, commissioned by the Archdiocese of Hartford's Office of Urban Affairs, looked at the state's growth patterns and found "inequality and sprawl." His findings, hiding in plain sight, included:

• Geographic stratification concentrates the state's poor in municipalities — mostly central cities — that don't have the resources to help them.

• Many smaller cities and older suburbs, home to nearly half the state's population, also face significant and growing poverty with weak local tax bases.

•Sprawling development threatens the state's natural resources and farmland.

•The state's fiscal system pits local governments against one another in a competition for tax base that needlessly undermines the character of local communities, wastes resources, discourages cooperation and increases fiscal disparities.

How little progress we've made in a decade. How much of what Orfield observed holds the state back today.

The Metropatterns report was one of many efforts in the middle part of the last decade to stop the low-density, wasteful development patterns that were eating up resources, creating traffic congestion, paving over the countryside and separating the haves and have-nots. There was a blue-ribbon commission, articles and forums and several new laws promoting smart growth, or growth in existing town centers and transit corridors.

For all of that, sprawl continues. The fastest growing towns, with few exceptions (Stamford), are outer suburbs with available land. Some programs, such as HomeConnecticut and, especially, the Community Investment Act, have made inroads against sprawl. The push for transit-oriented development has the potential to counter sprawl.

There is at least one more card in the deck. The state's 2013-1018 Conservation and Development Policies Plan has been completed and sent to the General Assembly for approval. The plan is excellent; it calls for the kind of smart growth that Myron Orfield and others urged on the state.

The plan calls for the revitalization of existing (or currently planned) town centers and transit corridors, as well as the protection and restoration of environmental, cultural and historical resources, a broad array of housing types and better intergovernmental planning (not an area of excellence here).

The conservation and development plan is intended to guide the activities of state agencies, and nothing requires towns, developers or anyone else to follow it. But this year's plan has a strengthening factor — it urges state agencies to put their money behind the plan and invest in "priority funding areas" that echo the principles laid out in the plan. So, for example, when state agencies buy property or make loans or grants, the money should be spent in town centers or within a half-mile of transit.

Will the state actually put its money where its plan is? There is no enforcement mechanism, per se, in the plan; the tiny planning office in state's Office of Policy and Management serves in an advisory and coordinating capacity. So, much depends on the implementation. Here, conservationists and other smart growth advocates need to be engaged, to make sure agencies follow the plan.

We all know that sprawl despoils the countryside and creates more traffic. What we may not be aware of is how expensive it is. The state made massive investments in its urban infrastructure over the years, and then in the past several decades has been abandoning it and rebuilding parts of it in the suburbs. It costs more, and takes more time and energy, to deliver services to a spread-out area than to a compact one. We complain about the cost of government in this state, yet we keep running up our own bill.

As the plan points out, a region's "development potential is highly correlated with its accessibility to urban-scale infrastructure." We need our cities to work, to be places where people come together, exchange ideas, start businesses. Connecticut has invested heavily in everything from wastewater treatment and transportation to energy generation and broadband access. We must maintain and leverage these assets and not abandon them.

We had that great burst of energy a decade ago, and began to get a handle on sprawl. We need to pick up the banner again.

Tom Condon can be reached at tcondon@courant.com.