Spurred by a growing national concern over the rapid rate of land development, the Clinton administration has proposed two programs to protect open spaces and promote “smart growth” throughout the nation.
Combined, the programs amount to an $11 billion package of financial incentives to encourage communities to improve regional land use planning, reduce highway congestion and preserve forests and farmlands.
The action is the federal government’s most significant move into the realm of land use planning — traditionally the domain of state and local governments — but the administration insisted that the program was aimed at providing people with new resources to plan, not new mandates.
“The federal government’s role should never be that of beauty commissar,” said Vice President Al Gore. “It is not appropriate for us to get into the business of local land use planning. But it is our job to work with states, such as Gov. Glendening’s Maryland, to support their remarkable smart growth efforts.
“It is our job to amplify citizens’ voices, and make it easier for communities to get their hands on the tools they need to build the way they want. It is our job to keep learning from community successes, and do what we can to support them.”
The two initiatives include a $10 billion “Livability Agenda” aimed at promoting smart growth strategies around the country, and a $1 billion “Lands Legacy Initiative” aimed at helping federal, state and local governments, as well as nonprofit organizations, purchase or otherwise protect open spaces.
For the Bay Program, the initiatives offer potential new avenues of support for many key issues, from fish habitat protection and forest preservation, to stream restoration and improved regional cooperation in transportation planning.
The initiatives were spurred by increased concerns nationwide about sprawl. Last year, more than 200 initiatives on state and local ballots were aimed at managing sprawl and protecting open space. Most of them passed.
“We are taking citizens’ concerns to the top of the national agenda,” Gore said.
Environmental groups were supportive of the initiatives. But, noting that sprawl development has been spurred by decades of federal spending on highways, sewers, flood control and other projects, some noted the plans are only a modest “first step.”
“While today’s plan moves in the right direction, we would encourage the administration to combine these kinds of smart investments with the elimination of traditional policies that encourage sprawl,” said Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope.
But the plan was blasted by U.S. Chamber of Commerce Vice President for Environment and Regulatory Affairs Bill Kovacs, who called the plan a “sham” that will lead to federal land-use planning, with the goal of making people live in “condominiums with postage-stamp yards.”
Only between $1 billion and $2 billion of those two programs represent new spending. The rest repackages existing programs in a way that prioritizes spending toward areas that have regional strategies to control sprawl, reduce air pollution and protect green spaces.
While the spending would have to be approved by Congress, interest in the subject has grown in the Capitol. The Senate has created a bipartisan Smart Growth task force to study sustainable development, and Sen. John Chafee, R-RI, chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, has called for his committee to pass a bill to curb suburban development.
The largest chunk of new spending in the Livability Agenda is $700 million in the EPA’s budget for new “Better America Bonds.” Under the program, the federal government would provide tax credits to investors who purchase the bonds, which would help state and local governments protect open space, revitalize urban areas, protect water quality and other quality-of-life improvements. The $700 million is expected to leverage about $9.5 billion in spending authority through the bonds.
The agenda also calls for spending $6.1 billion — a 16 percent increase from 1999 — on public transit. Another $2.2 billion would help communities develop regional transportation strategies that incorporate roads and transit systems, and encourage a broader use of alternative transportation.
The Land Legacy is aimed more at increasing spending — by roughly 125 percent — on existing programs rather than starting new ones. It would be the largest ever, one-year investment in land purchase and preservation.
About 60 percent of the money would go for state and local grants, but priority would be given to projects that are consistent with smart growth plans that prioritize areas for development and areas for protection.
Many express doubt that the full initiative would be funded. But there has been strong bipartisan support for revamping funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which would provide much of the Lands Legacy money.