From the biggest cities to the smallest towns, Pennsylvania communities still recovering from Hurricane Floyd can place partial blame for the region’s disastrous flooding on sprawl and poor planning, environmentalists charged.
Building in flood plains and near waterways, paving over wide expanses of land so it cannot absorb rain and tearing out water-absorbing trees all exacerbate flooding problems. Cities, suburbs and “exurbs” — communities even farther beyond traditional suburban areas — are all vulnerable, environmentalists say.
“We’re just spreading out and covering so much more land now. This huge land consumption is indeed contributing to the dangerous flooding,” said Joanne Denworth, president of 10,000 Friends of Pennsylvania, an alliance of groups and individuals that promote land-use policies.
In the last 30 years, Pennsylvania's population has risen 10 percent but the amount of developed area has at least doubled, said John Nelson, co-chairman of the Sprawl Committee of the state chapter of the Sierra Club.
“Obviously, sprawl brings about a larger number of impervious surfaces,” he said. “Where there used to be swamps and flood plains, we now have homes and storm drains.”
Floyd brought 50 mph winds and up to 12 inches of rain to parts of eastern and central Pennsylvania and eight people died.
Officials are quick to point out that massive storms like Floyd will always cause flooding, whether in heavily developed areas or not. But they maintain that careless development in natural drainage areas like flood plains has certainly made the problem worse.
“If this isn’t a crisis, I don’t know what is,” said Marilyn Skolnick, land use and transportation co-chair for the Sierra Club’s state chapter. “We can’t control when or where a storm goes, but we can look at the way we use land and where we build.”
Skolnick said federal and state governments do not do enough to discourage building in flood-prone areas. Tougher laws preventing massive development in such areas would be less costly to homeowners and taxpayers in the long run, she said.
“We don’t penalize the people who decide to be big risk takers and build wherever they want,” she said. “When you look at flood insurance, doesn’t it encourage people to build in inappropriate locations? It may sound cruel but if they choose to do that, it’s unfair to expect the rest of the region to pay for their bailout.”
Adding to the problem, Nelson said, is “an overall lack of resolve on any government level — federal, state or municipal — to protect wetlands. There’s a lot of talk and no action.”
Gov. Tom Ridge's 21st Century Environment Commission issued more than 200 recommendations last fall on controlling growth. After that, Ridge ordered a series of forums across the state this summer to air concerns from local governments and residents about the implications of sprawl and prospective restrictions on growth.
The General Assembly this fall will decide whether, and how much, to fund an initiative called “Growing Greener,” which would provide money to fund some of the 21st Century Environmental Commission’s proposals for land acquisition and the protection and the cleanup of acid mine drainage and other environmental programs.
Ridge proposed funding the program at $425 million over 5 years, but before adjourning for the summer, the House Environment and Energy Committee endorsed a program preferred by environmentalists that would provide $675 million for the initiative.
In August, two lawmakers proposed a separate environmental funding bill, called Preservation 2000, which would provide $500 million, but over 20 years.