Noting that “Pennsylvanians are living on more land than ever before,” a new report warns that managing sprawl development will be the state’s top environmental issue in the next century.

In its 76-page draft report, the 21st Century Environmental Commission suggests that planning needs to be done on a regional basis; infrastructure improvements should help guide development to specific areas; and efforts should be made to revitalize existing communities, among other changes.

The 40-member commission, including cabinet members, lawmakers, environmentalists and other interest groups, was appointed by Gov. Tom Ridge last year to develop environmental priorities for the next century. The draft report is out for public comment until July 10, and a final report is expected this fall.

In addition to promoting better land use, the commission also said the state needed to encourage conservation and the sustainable use of natural resources; improve human health and environmental quality; change the way it does business to protect the environment and promote development; and improve environmental stewardship among residents.

“While addressing all five of these topics is critical, our current land-use patterns — the increasing rate of land consumption and deterioration of our older communities — is our topic of greatest concern,” said James Seif, secretary of the state Department of Environmental Protection, who chaired the commission.

“When we were asked to prioritize our recommendations, the No. 1 action was for the state to support visioning and planning at the county and municipal government levels,” Seif said.

The report represents a dramatic change in attitude in Pennsylvania, where officials have long deferred all planning issues to more than 2,000 local governments.

Only a decade ago, a special “Year 2020 Panel” reported to the Bay Program that unless states played a more active role in managing growth, much of the progress toward restoring the Chesapeake would be undone. Then-Gov. Robert P. Casey called that report “draconian.”

Managing land use has been a concern for the Bay for a host of reasons: It increases runoff to waterways; adds air pollution from vehicles, which contributes to the Bay’s problems; and stresses wetlands and other resources.

In Pennsylvania, the report said, the population of the state’s 10 largest metropolitan areas grew by only 13 percent between 1970 and 1990, while the amount of developed land increased 80 percent.

As a result, the state is losing open space and farmland, wildlife habitat and groundwater recharge areas while increasing runoff, air pollution and flooding potential. Also, traditional rural land uses such as farming, forestry and mineral extraction are often incompatible with increased residential development.

The report says the state’s Municipalities Planning Code needs to be overhauled to get rid of provisions that contribute to sprawl and to provide municipalities with more tools to manage growth, such as allowing the transfer of development rights across municipal boundaries.

It also recommends that the state and local governments explore “smart” infrastructure development, in which development patterns are influenced by where roads, schools and water lines are built.

The report calls on Ridge to issue an executive order that declares sprawl is a problem and that farmland, open spaces and natural areas are threatened, valuable resources that should be protected.

On other issues, the report seeks a goal of eliminating human exposure to known harmful pollutants and recommends the setting up of a program to reclaim the state’s 250,000 acres of abandoned mine lands, much as it has done with brownfields.

It also calls for helping resource-based industries, such as agriculture, forestry and tourism to thrive, while conserving key resources for the future, such as natural diversity and water resources.

The report acknowledges that fully implementing its recommendations would cost a huge amount of money, but does not specifically say how that money would be raised. Some have said a bond issue of $1 billion or more is needed.

The report, and background information about the commission is available on the Internet at: www.21stcentury.state.pa.us

Conservation groups tout bond issue based on 21st Century report

A coalition of Pennsylvania groups is using the 21st Century Environmental Commission Report as a launching pad to promote a bond issue to fund land preservation, riparian buffer restoration and other activities.

The coalition, which includes environmental organizations, conservancies and others, is drafting a proposal to submit to the commission.

No exact figure for the bond issue has been set, said Cindy Adams Dunn, Pennsylvania director of the National Audubon Society.

“We’re pretty excited because we think the 21st Century Environmental Commission report sees some of the same needs we see out there,” Dunn said. “We think that we could really move some of the recommendations forward, and make them real.”

The bond issue could provide money for open space protection, biodiversity research, farmland preservation, rail trail development, improving park facilities, remediating streams damaged by acid mine drainage and other environmental and natural resource issues, Dunn said.