Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge produced a budget plan that he says will help the Keystone State by “growing greener” as it moves into the 21st Century.

The budget revamps how money is spent in environmental programs to emphasize watershed protection and the preservation of open space while discouraging sprawl.

“Changing how we spend that money will enable us to focus like never before on cleaner water, better parks, preserving open space and farmland, and controlling sprawl,” Ridge said in his budget address. “ ‘Growing Greener’ is a new way of looking at the environment — and the role government plays in protecting it.”

In many ways, the priorities reflect those emphasized by the 21st Century Environment Commission, which last year earmarked sprawl as the most critical issue facing the state as it enters the new millennium.

Ridge’s initiatives were generally well-received by environmentalists, though many said they would like to see the state increase funding, rather than just shift existing funds around.

The Growing Greener program, if approved by the General Assembly, would restructure how $1.3 billion is spent over the next five years — including $316 million in the 1999-2000 fiscal year alone. Mainly, it would do so by using surpluses that have built up in some accounts, and changing the rules on how others are used.

For example, the PENNVEST program, which provides $180 million a year in grants to help local governments finance infrastructure improvements such as sewer and stormwater systems, would be changed so local governments that practice sound land use — such as redeveloping urban areas and protecting open spaces — would get priority.

The proposal would also redirect $44 million, for one time only, from unused county Landfill Closure Accounts to fund farmland protection and open space preservation.

It would also redirect money from sewage facility operating grant programs, the state general fund, excess money from the Hazardous Sites Cleanup Fund and the Recycling Fund to raise $85 million a year for a new “Environmental Stewardship Fund.”

Over the next five years, that fund would spend:

  • $95 million for public lands stewardship. That would fund a backlog of sewer, water, road, bridge and dam repair improvements in state parks and forests.
  • $50 million for community conservation. That would provide grants to municipalities, authorities and conservation organizations to support local park, greenway, rail-trail, streamside buffer, farmland and open space preservation projects.
  • $160 million for abandoned mine and well reclamation. That would provide grants for reclamation projects by county conservation districts, watershed organizations, authorities and the state Senior Environment Corps to reclaim mine lands and plug oil and gas wells.
  • $95 million for watershed restoration. That would provide grants to support local projects to clean up nonpoint sources of pollution and to create a new program in PENNVEST to fund nonpoint source pollution control projects.
  • $25 million for sewer and water incentives. That would provide additional grants through PENNVEST to authorities and municipalities as an incentive for communities to develop infrastructure projects that support sound land-use planning and help economically disadvantaged communities.

Meanwhile, a bipartisan group of legislators in February introduced a comprehensive three-bill land use planning package that would give local governments more tools in zoning, including the ability to adopt growth boundaries that would protect rural resource areas.

It would also allow “common base zoning” in which developers could purchase land use rights from areas that would not be developed to be used in designated growth areas.

The sprawl issue has grown in visibility since the 21st Century Environmental Commission last fall made more than 200 recommendations about how to control sprawl and protect the state’s resources in the coming century.

The 40-member commission, appointed by Ridge, included lawmakers, state agency heads, scientists, environmental groups and business representatives. It called sprawl the “reckless, almost random growth of housing developments, strip malls, business parks, and the roads connecting them, and of the numbers of vehicles using those roads.”

Earlier, in response to the commission’s report, Ridge launched a “World Class Communities” program that would make state planning assistance grants available for multimunicipal projects ranging from regional land-use planning to joint ownership of equipment to shared operations or services.

In January, the governor issued an executive order directing his Center for Local Government Services to “identify best land-management practices” in the state and to develop education and training programs to promote their use.

The executive order also requires the center to identify changes that could be made into laws, regulations, practices and policies, including new sources of funding, that will promote the use of sound land use practices.

The order also says:

  • Development should be encouraged and supported in areas that are previously developed or in locally designated growth areas.
  • The Department of Education is to identify opportunities to incorporate land use education into curricula.
  • The Governor’s Greenway Commission will promote the incorporation of the statewide Greenways Plan into local and regional land use strategies.
  • The Department of Environmental Protection will establish a statewide geospacial data clearinghouse to provide information to local governments on how land use decisions impact the environment.