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This Land is Our Land

Central Pennsylvania Magazine
November 1997

By Thomas Hylton

Ever since William Penn founded his peaceable kingdom and named its first city in honor of brotherly love, the idea of "community" has held a special place in Pennsylvania culture.

In his inaugural address, Gov. Tom Ridge said "my avowed purpose is to summon every resource within me, and every resource within you, to re-instill, to reinvigorate, a sense of community throughout Pennsylvania."

Trouble is, most middle class residents don´t live in traditional communities. Their homes are part of the loose collection of housing subdivisions, corporate centers, industrial parks and shopping malls that have sprawled across Pennsylvania since World War II.

It´s pretty hard to enjoy a sense of community when Main Street has been replaced with Wal-Mart, and neighbors are mostly a blur whizzing by on I-83. And Pennsylvania´s system of 2,572 individual municipalities has precluded, until now, any metropolitan area from thinking and acting as one community.

"What has occurred in this region and across Pennsylvania is that the lack of land use planning and management has allowed the wanton destruction of significant areas of farmland, forests, and open space," says Harrisburg Mayor Stephen R. Reed. "In the process of this sprawl, the cities and older towns have been bled, leaving behind significant social and economic problems, diminished property values, and a myriad amount of social issues that no amount of government money will ever solve."

Meanwhile, suburbanites are often isolated in their subdivisions, says Rep. David Steil of Bucks County. "In my township, it´s sometimes hard to get people to work together because they live in little pockets of houses and don´t feel connected to others. They don´t feel part of a community."

But now the Ridge administration, legislators like Rep. Steil, and civic groups across the state are taking a critical look at problems caused by sprawling development. For example:

  • Mayor Reed, Cumberland County Commission Chair Nancy Besch and other elected officials in central Pennsylvania convened a well-attended "Region At Risk" Summit last November to discuss ways they could cooperate to manage growth. Recommendations will be unveiled at a second summit scheduled next March.
  • Gov. Ridge has created the 21st Century Environment Commission, comprising cabinet secretaries, corporate CEOs, and civic leaders from across the state, to identify ways Pennsylvania can improve the quality of its environment in the next century. Curbing sprawl is at the top of the commission’s agenda.
  • Legislation has been introduced to encourage countywide and regional planning and zoning to discourage sprawl.

  • Business groups in Reading, Erie, the Lehigh Valley and other regions of the state have started citizens’ movements, involving hundreds of people, to start thinking regionally and find ways to help their cities. "We are asking everybody to look at the Lehigh Valley as a regional community," said Robert Episcopo, co-chairman of the Lehigh Valley Partnership, a group of business CEOs. "We will have a stronger region if we have strong, viable cities."
  • Spearheaded by a group of business leaders called Better York, an alliance of mid-sized cities is coming together to lobby the legislature for laws that will focus new development back to cities and towns and cut off subsidies to sprawl such as expanded highways and sewer lines in undeveloped areas.
  • A coalition of statewide civic groups called 10,000 Friends of Pennsylvania has started a campaign to reform Pennsylvania’s land use laws to preserve open space and rebuild traditional towns.
  • Counties such as Lancaster, York, and Chester are proposing or implementing growth boundaries to contain new development in compact areas near existing developed areas.

The chief aim of all these efforts is to reverse the trend towards more dispersed homes, stores, and offices that began in the 1950s. Until the Second World War, most Pennsylvanians lived in compact cities like Harrisburg or small boroughs like Hummelstown. These cities and towns had within walking distance stores, offices, and homes in every price range. Their neighborhoods contained residents of all ages and incomes, who paid taxes to the same municipality and received the same public services.

This way of life didn´t take up much space. For example, Harrisburg covers just 1.5% of Dauphin County´s land area. In 1950, nearly half the residents of Dauphin County lived there.

Mushrooming car production, massive highway building, and new zoning theories in the 1950s changed that. Gradually, the middle class moved out of the cities into low density suburbs dependent entirely on the car. Townships began adopting separate zoning districts for shopping centers, corporate parks, homes, and other land uses. Minorities and the poor became increasingly isolated in the cities, which suffered from a steadily declining tax base.

Pennsylvania courts ruled that Pennsylvania´s local municipalities, if they zoned at all, had to zone for every reasonable use of land. With 40 individual municipalities in Dauphin County, for example, there must be zones to accommodate 40 possible Kmarts, 40 corporate centers, 40 industrial parks, and 40 high-density residential areas, among other things.

"Such a patchwork of zoning laws is a recipe for sprawl," says Joanne Denworth, who is coordinating the effort for 10,000 Friends. And Pennsylvania’s heavy reliance on the property tax means municipalities compete with each other to attract new development without regard to their regional impact.

Lancaster was the first Pennsylvania County to recognize the implications of low density development and take action to reverse it.

"In the 1980s, we converted about 70 square miles of open land -- an area nearly half the size of Philadelphia -- for suburban development," says Lancaster County planning director Ron Bailey. "People were seeing this massive amount of development going on, and a massive amount of farmland conversion, and new outlet centers springing up while other outlet centers had vacant stores. It became the dominant issue in the county."

In 1992, the Lancaster County Planning Commission introduced the concept of urban growth areas -- land adjacent to existing towns where new development is encouraged. The county identified enough land to accommodate all foreseeable development for a 20-year period plus a healthy margin of error. The planning commission then drew tentative development boundaries -- a large one around the city of Lancaster, and 12 smaller ones around boroughs like Mount Joy and Columbia -- to keep future development in a contiguous area.

For the last five years, the commission has sought the voluntary cooperation of its 60 municipalities to legally adopt their individual pieces of the growth boundaries, negotiating as necessary to get each one´s approval.

"So far it´s working, but it´s all voluntary," Bailey says. "Unfortunately, any township can upset the entire plan by approving development outside the growth boundary. And we still have a problem with case law stating that every municipality must zone for every conceivable land use."

Two major pieces of legislation have been introduced to ease that problem. Senate Bill 270, introduced by Sen. James Gerlach of Chester County, would require local municipalities to make their planning and zoning laws consistent with a single county comprehensive plan if the plan is approved by a countywide referendum. Municipalities that zone together will be free from the requirement that each must individually allow for every land use.

House Bill 1614 proposed by Rep. Steil goes further by specifically authorizing counties to draw growth boundaries if approved by participating municipalities or by a countywide referendum. The growth boundaries would allow for the orderly extension of infrastructure from existing towns and urban areas, and no infrastructure would be provided outside of them. Once the growth boundaries are adopted, individual municipalities affected would no longer be required to zone for every conceivable use.

York County is following Lancaster’s lead. Last year, Better York Inc. hired urban expert David Rusk to evaluate the York region in a 24-page report published in the York Daily Record.

Rusk, a former mayor of Albuquerque and author of several books on regionalism, argues that traditional cities cannot survive unless suburbs take more responsibility for the region’s poor. Suburbs cannot afford to isolate themselves from the city´s problems because the region as a whole will decline if the central city dies.

Using census data, Rusk’s report showed that York County´s poor and minority residents were increasingly isolated in the city of York. While the metropolitan York area has one of the America´s lowest poverty rates, the city of York has one of the nation´s highest.

But the City of York is not the only loser, Rusk reported. The older suburbs adjacent to the city, now fully developed, are also declining.

"There are two iron laws of suburban sprawl," Rusk says. "First, the new beats out the old. Developing townships are always better off financially than older ones. Second, today’s winners may become tomorrow’s losers. Once a township becomes fully developed, it gradually begins losing its wealthier residents and its tax base to developing townships further out on the fringe."

Meanwhile, because of development at ever-lower densities, York County lost 30 percent of its farmland between 1960 and 1992.

Rusk recommended that York County should adopt Lancaster County’s system of growth boundaries; promote the dispersal of affordable housing to lessen the concentration of the poor in York City; and seek legislation that would require local municipalities to share taxes, helping those with a declining tax base.

In the wake of the Rusk Report, people are thinking of York more as a region and less as a collection of separate fiefdoms, said Dennis Hetzel, editor and publisher of the Daily Record. "We’re doing stories every week where we see elected officials starting to think on a regional basis for things like fire service or merging police forces."

Better York called a meeting of supervisors from the inner ring townships around York to confer with Rusk. "At the end," recalls businessman Tom Wolf, president of Better York, "one supervisor got up and said: "We know what the problem is. What we need is joint action, up to and including growth boundaries."

The next year will determine whether that can happen. In September, the York County commissioners adopted a new comprehensive plan calling for a large growth boundary around the City of York and its inner ring suburbs, and smaller boundaries around towns like Hanover, Dillsburg and Shrewsbury-New Freedom. Now the county must seek the cooperation of a score of municipalities to implement them.

Rusk´s report will be updated and reprinted this November in the Daily Record. To go with it, Better York has sponsored a countywide public opinion survey and focus groups to gauge public attitudes about what people want York County to look like in the future. "We hope the results of the survey will help stiffen some political spines," Hetzel said.

While York County pursues what Rusk calls "the inside game" -- things like cooperative agreements the county and local municipalities can do under current law -- Better York is also pursuing "the outside game": changes in state law and state policies needed to save cities and farmland.

"Through a series of business contacts we are trying to get Pennsylvania cities together to promote a legislative agenda to curb sprawl." says Charles Bacas, a consultant who is promoting a statewide alliance of mid-sized cities on behalf of Better York.

What would that legislation entail? Besides growth boundaries, tax sharing legislation would help reduce the disparities between wealthy municipalities and poor ones. The Lehigh Valley Partnership, for example, has proposed a regional tax for Lehigh and Northampton counties such as a 1% sales tax that could be used in part to assist poorer municipalities. The Partnership also wants more effective state policies to reuse vacant lands in cities like Allentown and Bethlehem.

"I think what happened in Pennsylvania is that the mountain moved a little bit in 1997," said Hetzel of the Daily Record. "I attended a focus group where people talked about the future of York County. They all articulated a vision of continued urban sprawl, and none of them liked it. So I think there´s a significant segment of the public that´s ahead of the politicians and willing to consider alternatives to sprawl if they can be shown how to do it."

Saving our farmland depends on saving our cities. Quality of life is attained on a regional basis, not the local municipal level. Throughout Pennsylvania, people from the city, the suburbs and rural areas are beginning to feel a sense of mutual destiny and shared community.



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