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Planning prophet goes global

Advocate of walkable towns takes his message far from Pottstown.

Philadelphia Inquirer
Thursday, April 20, 2000

By Diane Mastrull, Inquirer Staff Writer

Not that long ago, Tom Hylton rarely went anywhere he couldn't reach by foot or bicycle. He lived a block from the newspaper where he worked. He hated flying.

He routinely wore bow ties and drank milk, never alcohol. He led a homebody existence on tree-lined Chestnut Street in Pottstown.

So what on Earth was Hylton, 51, doing recently on the banks of London's Thames River with a punk rocker who was sporting a dog collar and half-shaven/half-spiked hair?

Saving Pennsylvania, Hylton hopes.

That is the name of a documentary Hylton has produced that will air at 10 p.m. today on WHYY-TV (Channel 12). It is his latest push for a new approach to land-use planning to curb sprawl and save cities and towns in a state recently ranked second in the nation by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for the amount of land converted to development.

Hylton coproduced the program with Dirk Eitzen, an independent documentary filmmaker and professor of film and media studies at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster. It was funded by the Heinz Endowments, the Chester County Community Foundation, the Wyomissing Foundation, the Susquehanna Pfaltzgraff Co., and the Montgomery County Lands Trust. In an interview this week, Hylton, wearing dress pants and shirt, a conservative tie, and a red, V-neck sweater vest, tried to explain his out-of-character bonding with a punk rocker in the opening scene of Saving Pennsylvania.

"The whole object was to take a subject that people find boring and make it interesting," he said.

But that's about as lighthearted as Saving Pennsylvania gets. It is an hour-long look at decaying neighborhoods in Philadelphia that suffered population losses when residents fled to the suburbs seeking newer homes and better schools.

It shows how farmland-preservation programs in the suburbs are not keeping up with development and talks about the frustration of residents who feel like prisoners of their cars.

It offers glimpses of what Hylton considers "better alternatives" to Pennsylvania's land-use practices. He found them in England, North Carolina, Florida and Oregon.

There are towns and ideas in Pennsylvania, too, that he considers worth replicating. Hylton described West Chester as the most racially and economically integrated town around Philadelphia. Narberth and Jenkintown are ideal walkable communities, he said, but lack the economic diversity of West Chester.

Of the 67 counties in Pennsylvania, Hylton said, Lancaster is "way ahead" in having a "clear focus and vision" about how it wants to grow, using growth boundaries to control development.

Saving Pennsylvania pushes the use of regional planning and growth boundaries to protect rural area and encourage redevelopment of cities and towns.

In Pennsylvania, municipal officials have jealously guarded local land-use decision-making. Under what Hylton calls a "crazy-quilt zoning system," each of the state's 2,568 municipalities must provide for every type of development, from quarries to shopping malls, high-end housing to mobile homes. Builders say growth boundaries, including those praised by Hylton in Oregon, artificially limit land available for development, driving up housing prices.

Saving Pennsylvania also advocates zoning changes to allow construction of traditional neighborhoods such as Disney's Celebration in Florida, where schools, stores and jobs are within walking distance of houses. Current zoning in Pennsylvania prohibits building of walkable communities like Hylton's beloved Pottstown. Such proposals have been hotly opposed by communities around here because they involve higher densities than conventional subdivisions and the mixing of businesses and homes.

Even if they are interested in building walkable communities, builders and developers "are not in the business to fight the existing zoning laws," builder John Dewey of Dewey Homes in Paoli says in Saving Pennsylvania. "It takes too much time, too much effort, too much money."

The program also advocates incentives to encourage the recycling of abandoned and underused properties in towns and older suburbs rather than development of green fields in the country.

But change will involve selling buyers on a new way of living, Hylton says in the documentary.

"Frankly, Pennsylvania will never save its cities, towns and rural areas," he says, "so long as the dream home for most of us includes a half-acre lot in the countryside that's far from stores, schools and jobs."

It is a drum that Hylton has been beating for more than 10 years.

In 1990, his series of editorials for the Mercury advocating preservation of farmland and open space was awarded journalism's top honor, the Pulitzer Prize.

In 1993, that led to a fellowship to travel for a year studying comprehensive state land-use planning.

Now he's on a plane an average of once a month giving lectures and looking for new ideas for continuing his crusade for a smarter way of development in Pennsylvania.

Having left journalism, Hylton wrote a book in 1995, Save Our Land; Save Our Towns, credited by one lawmaker with having provided much of the initiative for the continuing push for changes in land-use laws in Pennsylvania.

The book was the basis for Saving Pennsylvania, which also will air on the six other public TV stations in the state at various times over the next week.



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