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Up Against the Sprawl

Squandering Our Land, Squandering Our Towns?

Central Pennsylvania Magazine
March 2003

By Thomas Hylton

"An Acre An Hour."

That´s how the The Philadelphia Inquirer described the loss of open space in its 1999 series on suburban sprawl in southeastern Pennsylvania. One acre developed, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

"Looking for SPRAWL, PA? Just look outside your window," advised a recent headline in Harrisburg´s Patriot-News, which reported that Central PA grew by 10 percent during the 1990s, the highest rate in the state.

By Sun Belt standards, even a 10 percent growth rate is downright anemic. But in Pennsylvania, it doesn´t take much population growth to chew up thousands of acres of land. Between 1982 and 1997, Pennsylvania grew by 1.4 percent in population but consumed 41 percent more land to do it.

While Pennsylvania is close to the bottom of the nation in population and job growth, it ranks near the top for land consumed - fifth after rapidly growing Texas, Georgia, Florida and California. That gives Pennsylvanians the distinction of squandering more land, per capita, than any other state in the Union. And nearly all the land developed is good, quality farmland. The enemy, unfortunately, is us.

About 80 percent of developed land goes for housing, and the size of average house lots has increased enormously in recent decades. While Levittown´s quarter-acre lots seemed spacious in 1950, the average lot today is an acre in Lancaster County and nearly two acres in Chester County.

"It´s not about the size of our houses, it´s about the size of our lawns," says Ronald Bailey, director of the Lancaster County Planning Commission. "We have to decide whether we want to have big lawns or save farmland." Big lots not only consume land, but also foster a car-dependent lifestyle. Since 90 percent of our trips are made by car, ample parking lots are needed at every potential destination - offices, stores, schools, churches. Empty or full, they take up huge quantities of land.

The traffic congestion, loss of open space, and the sheer ugliness of sprawl have not gone unnoticed in Harrisburg. "Legislators in this area of the state don´t need to go to seminars on suburban sprawl," says State Rep. David Argall, R-Tamaqua, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee and a leader in land-use issues. "They just drive from one place to another and see it every day."

People want to save farms - 90 percent of respondents in a recent Lancaster County poll wanted farmland development slowed or stopped - and the legislature has responded with the most expensive farmland-preservation program in the nation.

Since 1989, using mostly state funds, Pennsylvania counties have paid farmers more than $475 million to put deed restrictions on their farms, assuring they will never be developed. Thus far, more than 235,000 acres have been preserved.

At first blush, that seems like a huge amount, but it represents less than 4 percent of Pennsylvania´s farmland. At the present rate, it would take nearly three centuries to protect Pennsylvania´s remaining farmland by purchasing development rights. Still, the favorable headlines the program generates - "Three more farms saved in Lebanon County!" - guarantee the program will continue even in lean economic times.

A more comprehensive effort to address sprawl began in 1998 after the 21st Century Environment Commission, a 40-member panel appointed by Governor Ridge to recommend ways to improve Pennsylvania´s environment, concluded that sprawling development was the state´s number-one environmental problem. "Sprawl wastes open land, damages habitat and natural diversity, and destroys historic sites," the commission said. "We give top priority to the challenge of promoting responsible land use."

In response, Governor Ridge ordered state agencies to review their policies to find ways to reduce sprawl. He directed the state´s Center for Local Government to submit an annual report on land-use trends in Pennsylvania and to recommend better land-use practices. The following year, the governor signed "Growing Smarter" legislation that encourages municipalities to create joint municipal plans that can target some areas for growth and designate other areas for conservation. Since then, more than $7 million in planning grants have been awarded, and 138 regional initiatives involving 628 municipalities are underway.

The sheer number of municipalities is itself the main problem. In most states, zoning is done at the county level. Pennsylvania is one of a handful of states that divide planning and zoning powers among all its municipalities - in our case 2,567. This fragmentation virtually guarantees the demise of our countryside because it legally encourages developers to build anything anywhere.

York County, for example, is divided into 36 boroughs, 35 townships and the city of York. Each municipality, if it attempts to control land use, must zone for every conceivable kind, for a total of 72 possible Wal-Marts, 72 corporate centers, 72 high-density housing areas. "Those kinds of zoning requirements make sprawl inevitable," says Joanne Denworth, president of 10,000 Friends of Pennsylvania, the state´s largest land- preservation organization.

In an age when people routinely drive 20 miles or more to go to work or to shop, the only sensible way to manage development is on the larger scale that counties represent. That way, if there are only enough people to support four Wal-Marts in York County, it would not be necessary to create 72 zones for them.

A handful of counties, such as Chester, Lancaster and York, are vigorously encouraging their municipalities to rally around a countywide plan. Lancaster County, which has promoted regionalism the longest and made the most progress, has identified 13 growth areas: a large one around the city of Lancaster, and 12 smaller ones around boroughs like Lititz and Columbia. Over a 10-year period, most of the county´s 60 municipalities have enacted their part of the boundary. Now the county is working with municipalities to adjust their zoning to encourage pedestrian-friendly development inside the growth areas and to restrict development outside of them. Already, Lancaster has more land zoned exclusively for agriculture than every other county in Pennsylvania combined.

Deteriorating cities and towns are another devastating consequence that is less visible to the mostly middle-class residents who inhabit the world of sprawl. Ever since suburban living became fashionable, virtually every Pennsylvania city and town has lost population, leaving behind declining neighborhoods, deserted main streets and abandoned factory buildings. In the 1990s, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh lost about 103,000 people, continuing a 50-year-old trend. Mid-sized cities like Erie, Johnstown and Scranton lost thousands as well. Urban expert David Rusk, analyzing 2000 census data, added York, Harrisburg and Reading to a list of America´s 39 most troubled cities, based on population loss, low income levels and racial segregation.

Philadelphia now has 26,000 vacant buildings and another 31,000 vacant lots where buildings used to be. Mayor John Street has proposed an anti-blight program costing $250 million, most of which will be used just to tear down buildings.

It´s not just cities that are suffering. Hundreds of small towns, from Beaver Falls to Carlisle to Carbondale, have been hurt by the suburban migration.

To a growing number of policy makers, the problem of declining towns offers the best solution to sprawl: Make our cities and towns more attractive, and people will move back, lessening development pressure in the countryside. Bring more jobs and middle-class residents to our towns, and you can revitalize neighborhoods, increase the tax base, decrease crime, improve schools and provide the poor with real opportunities for upward mobility. This way of thinking received a huge boost with the election of Ed Rendell as governor. As the man credited with saving Philadelphia from the brink of disaster, Rendell is a true believer in the advantages of cities as places to live and work. And Rendell may have allies in the Republican-dominated legislature. "I think a growing number of legislators, Republican and Democrat, have made the connection between the decline of towns and suburban sprawl," Representative Argall said. "Nearly every legislator has at least one declining town in his district, so revitalizing towns is in everyone´s best interest."

Although Pennsylvania continues to lose its towns and countryside to sprawl, there is a willingness to take action that didn´t exist 10 years ago, according to Bailey. "People expect things to happen overnight, but it´s a slow process to change long-term trends. Until recently, many people didn´t even know they have control over these things."

Among the Steps Needed

  • Channel more development to brownfields, the abandoned industrial sites that are usually located in cities and towns. Since enacting a landmark brownfield law in 1995, Pennsylvania has invested more than $53 million to clean up and reuse 1,100 sites. But more can be done. "It´s still cheaper for a developer to use virgin land than a brownfield site," says the Lancaster County Planning Commission´s Ronald Bailey.
  • Create a separate building code for rehabilitating older buildings. The building codes used in Pennsylvania are designed for new structures, which often make it financially unfeasible to renovate existing buildings in cities and towns. Within a year after New Jersey passed a special code for older structures in 1998, rehabilitation of older buildings increased 60 percent.
  • Focus state investment in existing urban areas. State spending has an enormous influence on where development goes, from new highways to the location of state office buildings to economic development grants. "The state could give preference to urban locations and brownfield sites," Denworth says. "Governor Rendell could do that by executive order."



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