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The Walking Life

Little has been done to prevent development in Charlotte´s outer fringe

Charlotte Observer
Wednesday, April 30, 2003

By Thomas Hylton

Growing up in 1950s Pittsburgh, I never heard of Charlotte. But I knew my city of 670,000 was winning national plaudits for cleaning up its notoriously dirty air, rebuilding its downtown with gleaming skyscrapers, and creating a spectacular park where the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers form the mighty Ohio.

In the decades since then, Pittsburgh has lost its steel industry and half its population, while rapidly growing Charlotte is now a major banking, transportation and manufacturing center with nearly 600,000 residents.

Of the many factors in Charlotte´s success, none is more important than North Carolina´s farsighted 1957 annexation law. As the nation suburbanized, Charlotte suburbanized right along with it, covering an area that´s larger today than Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Boston combined. Annexation allowed North Carolina cities to retain and grow their industries and population, while landlocked Pennsylvania cities were reduced to beggary surrounded by wealthy and disdainful suburbs. This served no one´s interests and crippled growth in the Keystone State. While North Carolina grew more than 20 percent in the 1990s, for example, Pennsylvania grew by an anemic 3 percent.

But the unbridled growth that served Charlotte so well in the last century will not serve it nearly as well in the new one. Charlotte is running out of annexation space, and the completion of the I-485 beltway will push development 30 miles beyond the city center. As Atlanta is learning, an auto-dependent region will eventually destroy its air quality, deplete its groundwater, choke on its traffic, and pave over verdant countryside.

In recent years, Charlotte has embraced - in theory, at least - Smart Growth, which calls for placing stores, homes and offices close enough together to make walking and public transportation feasible. Development is concentrated around existing town centers and transportation corridors, while farms and woodlands are preserved. Charlotte and some surrounding towns have worked to increase densities, a key part of Smart Growth, but little progress has been made to prevent development in the countryside.

Civic and business leaders - properly - have called for a regional authority to coordinate land use and transportation policies. Unfortunately, state leaders have shown little interest in the kind of pioneering legislation needed to create it. Meanwhile, North Carolina is losing high quality farmland faster than all but three other states, according to the American Farmland Trust.

Although Pennsylvania is hardly synonymous with enlightened land use, it does have one stellar program that could serve as a model for the most of the counties in the Piedmont. Since 1993, Pennsylvania´s Lancaster County has used growth boundaries, strict agricultural zoning, and the purchase of conservation easements to save its farmland and protect its economy.

Nationally famous for its Amish farmers, Lancaster is one of the nation´s top agricultural counties, with tourism as its second leading industry. As manufacturers, corporations and retirees gravitated to the county in the 1980s, however, the sprawling development they spawned threatened the scenic landscapes and quality of life that make Lancaster County so attractive and are the foundations of its economy.

Pennsylvania´s antiquated land use laws made Lancaster´s task far more difficult than anything the Piedmont faces. Pennsylvania has no unincorporated land, and planning and zoning authority is delegated to hundreds of small townships in addition to cities and towns. Lancaster County, which is about the size of Union and Carrabus counties, comprises one city, 18 small towns, and 41 townships, each with its own planning and zoning regulations.

In the early 1990s, the Lancaster County Planning Commission drew up tentative growth boundaries around the city of Lancaster and 12 of its satellite towns, covering enough land to accommodate all foreseeable growth for 20 years. The commission lobbied each of the affected municipalities to promote its concept. Ten years later, nearly all the boundaries have been adopted.

Outside the boundaries, nearly all the townships have enacted agricultural zoning, which the county defines as no more than one housing unit for each 20 acres of contiguous land. More than a third of the county´s total land area is zoned exclusively for agriculture.

At the same time, the county began purchasing conservation easements on farms with county and state funds. On average, Lancaster farmers have been paid about $2,000 an acre for deed restrictions that forbid the land from being developed. Thus far, 600 farms covering 55,000 acres have been permanently preserved. In recent years, Lancaster has preserved two acres for each one developed.

I admire Lancaster not just because it has among the best farmland preservation programs in the nation, but because it succeeded in the face of such daunting odds. Lancaster can only dream of the powers that Piedmont counties already enjoy: the ability to zone on a countywide basis, working with a handful of traditional towns where development can be focused.

Counties on Charlotte´s outer fringe, which are mostly woodlands and farm fields, still have time to control their destiny. They cannot afford to wait for new tools from Raleigh. They can - and must - get started now.



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