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A case for change in Pennsylvania

Erie Times-News
Wednesday, April 24, 1996

By Pat Howard

It's tempting to dismiss Thomas Hylton as just another naïve dreamer. His hopeful, can-do approach doesn't change the fact that he's attempting quite a trick: bringing the big picture into focus.

Hylton, a journalist and author with a Pulitzer Prize on his shelf at home in Pottstown, Pa., has made a crusade of shining a spotlight on Pennsylvania's big picture for anyone he can talk into looking at it. A lifelong Pennsylvanian, he spends a great deal of his time trying to persuade people that it's unnecessary, indeed foolish, for our state to continue pursuing public policies that devastate its cities, turn its farmland into pavement, corrode its environment and cause or aggravate various social ills.

Through his newspaper writing, research, public talks and his fascinating book, "Save Our Land, Save Our Towns," Hylton has been applying to his home state the case for regional thinking and action, and the case against the ecological gluttony and waning sense of community that come with suburban sprawl. During his presentation at the Eric County Courthouse on a recent Thursday night, Hylton argued that foolish public policies still in effect helped create a good deal of what ails us – from high taxes and crime to racial and economic segregation – and that over time smarter policies could help fix a good deal of what's broken.

To Hylton, that means planning on a statewide basis to change the way we define, organize and administer Pennsylvania's communities. That means state policies discouraging endless suburban sprawl and the huge de facto public subsidies that go with it, and instead focusing on creating more livable, cohesive, prosperous metropolitan communities. That means rejecting the short-sighted mentality that causes too many in, say, Millcreek to write off the city of Erie as someone else's problem, and that will eventually prompt others to flee and write off Millcreek.

It can't be done, right? Wrong. It's being done, quite successfully, in a growing number of other states and other communities.

Hylton and like-minded people propose developing a comprehensive state plan that recognizes in public policy what's become so clear in research, demographics and common sense: that we're cannibalizing our older cities and towns to aid people with enough money in fleeing community problems instead of helping to fix them; and that we're squandering our natural and financial resources, and sacrificing our overarching sense of community, in the process.

Hylton argues that comprehensive planning should be a foundation of Pennsylvania government. Currently, as Hylton writes in his book, state government "spends billions of tax dollars annually and employs more than 650,000 people without having a clear notion of what it wants to achieve." That lack of focus, he writes, leads to situations like this: "The state Department of Agriculture spends millions of dollars annually to preserve farmland by purchasing development rights from farmers. Meanwhile, the state Department of Transportation spends other millions expanding highways into prime agricultural areas, highways that promote the development of that farmland."

Go figure.

Eleven states – including New Jersey, of all places – have been developing comprehensive plans in an attempt to get everyone on the same page. According to Hylton, different states using different methods have consulted citizens and found their desires to be quite similar. They want, among other things, steady economic development; revival of cities and towns as safe, attractive centers of civic life; good government services at the least possible cost; affordable housing; protection of open spaces; and a renewed sense of community.

Those 11 states are now working to design and coordinate their policies toward such ends. That isn't easy because such coordination requires major changes in local governmental organization and regulations. Such efforts certainly aren't for the politically weak-hearted.

Among the changes Hylton favors is for Pennsylvania to give county governments the power to create "urban growth boundaries" around cities and towns that would contain enough space "to accommodate all predicted commercial, residential and industrial development for the next 20 years, plus a safety margin of 50 percent." Development within those boundaries would be given "the red-carpet treatment," Hylton told his audience at the courthouse, while development outside them would be heavily restricted and not supported by publicly financed infrastructure. That approach has a proven track record in places such as Lexington, Ky., and Portland, Ore.

Hylton advocates basing Pennsylvania's approach on the regional urban growth planning already being conducted cooperatively by many of the municipalities of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania's fastest-growing metropolitan area over the past 15 years. That approach, endorsed by a Lancaster coalition including business leaders, developers and environmentalists "after several years of soul-searching and debate," also includes measures forsaking typical, post-World War II cookie-cutter zoning in favor of older, more intimate conceptions of neighborhoods and communities.

Of course, the notion of urban growth boundaries and other state-imposed regional changes might send your average "property rights" activist over the edge, and could even spook your casual metropolitan government sympathizer. And there's a great deal more to Hylton's vision, all of it guaranteed to provoke an argument with someone.

But that's what we need: to discuss and argue regionalism and sprawl thoroughly, substantively and publicly. That's the sort of debate Hylton and others are trying to force at the state level, and that the Erie Conference on Community Development aims to spark at the local level. After too many years of city-suburban trash talk, in other words, it's time to find a way to get down to brass tacks.

You don't have to agree with Hylton's specific prescriptions to embrace his larger point that it's time to fundamentally rethink how community life in Pennsylvania is organized. You don't have to favor all-or-nothing regional/metropolitan government to agree that suburban residents have a direct stake in the city of Erie's future, and that city residents have a direct stake in the major, cumulative costs of suburban sprawl. And you don't have to abandon all skepticism about the elaborate designs of do-gooders to recognize that the case for change developed by Thomas Hylton and many others is compelling enough for everyone in Erie County and throughout Pennsylvania to take it a lot more seriously than we have so far.

Pat Howard is editorial page editor of the Erie Daily Times and Sunday Times-News.



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