Last year, the Pennsylvania General Assembly passed “Growing Greener” legislation to fund watershed planning, environmental cleanups and open space preservation for the next five years.

This year, for an encore, it has passed “Growing Smarter” legislation, which takes effect in August.

With it, Pennsylvania has joined the national trend toward improving land use decisions as the General Assembly passed, and Gov. Tom Ridge signed, a pair of bills aimed at slowing suburban sprawl by giving communities the ability to work together to control development and preserve open space.

“We celebrate Pennsylvania’s 21st century approach toward eliminating what has been a 20th century attitude, that you could not nurture a strong economy and at the same time preserve and enhance natural resources,” Ridge said as he signed the bills June 22.

The two-bill package includes financial incentives for communities that work together on joint land use and zoning plans, and protects them from lawsuits brought by developers.

After 10 years of failed attempts, it was the first successful effort to update the state’s 32-year-old Municipalities Planning Code, the law that guides land use decisions.

“We have been working on this legislation for years and are confident that, if municipalities use these tools, it will improve the quality of life of Pennsylvanians across the state,” said Joanne Denworth, president of 10,000 Friends of Pennsylvania.

The action will help the state meet its commitments under the new Chesapeake 2000 Agreement, which call for states to slow the rate of watershed development 30 percent by 2012, and to protect a fifth of the watershed’s land as permanent open space by 2010.

Concern about sprawl in the Keystone state has been on the rise for a decade. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Inventory, Pennsylvania ranked second nationally in the rate of land development between 1992 and 1997, with 224,640 acres of farm and forest converted to other uses annually.

Two years ago, the Pennsylvania 21st Century Environment Commission, a special panel appointed by Ridge, reported that improving land use decisions was the state’s most pressing environmental challenge.

Doing that in Pennsylvania is a formidable task. The state has more than 2,000 local governments, each in charge of local land use planning. Further, municipalities were required to allow every conceivable land use within each jurisdiction — failing to do so could lead to court battles with developers.

Under the new legislation, municipalities that work together in planning no longer have to provide for all land uses in each jurisdiction. They can work together to designate growth areas, which would be served with public infrastructure such as roads and sewers, and areas that would be protected.

And — for the first time — municipalities can use “transferable development rights” across jurisdictional borders to direct growth and protect open space. They allow landowners to realize the full value of their property by selling development “rights” which can be used in designated growth areas.

Besides giving local governments new protection from legal challenges, the bills also provide incentives for multiple local governments to work together — those that do could be eligible for state grants and could get priority for state spending on infrastructure improvements.

While offering new tools and incentives to manage growth, the ultimate decision of whether to do things differently rests in the hands of local governments.

Thomas Hylton, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Save Our Land, Save Our Towns: A Plan for Pennsylvania,” warned that change will come slowly and depends on whether county governments can get local communities to work together.

“Unless the municipalities decide, ‘Yes, we’re going to work together and do a joint plan,’ it’s business as usual for the builders,” Hylton said. But, he added, Ridge and the legislature have “come a long way from where they were three or four years ago.”

Doug Hill, executive director of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania, said his members favor the legislation precisely because it does retain local control. “On the one hand, counties are going to have to work harder to craft solutions. On the other hand, once that happens, (municipalities’) voluntary cooperation means they’re going to be that much more committed,” he said.

In the legislature, some of the most objectional parts of the bill to developers were dropped. In its original form, the legislation would have allowed municipalities to draw up strict growth boundaries. But an amendment removed all language about boundaries, although the designated growth zones in the final bill are similar.

Also scrapped was a proposal supported by municipal governments who wanted the right to delay approval of any development for up to five years until infrastructure such as roads and sewers were built.

The final bills were supported by both environmentalists and builders, groups rarely on the same side of the sprawl brawl.

John Hanger, director of Citizens for Pennsylvania’s Future, said that with the bills, “Pennsylvania joined other progressive states in giving its citizens the necessary tools to protect themselves from unchecked development and greed.”

Still, he complained, the final bill was amended in a way that could make it more difficult for local governments to control new, large-scale animal agricultural operations. “Many rural communities will find it harder to provide traditional protections for property owners who find themselves besieged by these intensive animal factories,” he said.

The legislation bolsters Ridge’s image as a national figure in dealing with land use issues. Last year, he signed “Growing Greener” legislation that will appropriate $650 million over five years on environmental programs, many of which will help local governments protect open space.

This year, he included $3.6 million to local governments that work together on land use issues. It is the first money ever appropriated in the state for land use planning.

He also ordered a review of state agencies to determine how their programs could be changed to support local land use planning. A report is expected in August.

Though not part of the “Growing Smarter” package, Ridge also signed a bill that encourages state agencies to locate new offices in central business districts of cities, boroughs and townships.

“State government is preparing to do our share to preserve open space and vibrant downtowns,” Ridge said. “Locating a state office in an existing central business district encourages additional private investment, leads to renovations of neighboring buildings and preserves open space elsewhere.”

The state employs nearly 85,000 people in 24 agencies, and leases nearly 10 million square feet of office space. The “Downtown Location Law” requires the state Department of General Services to establish guidelines for state agencies to locate in central business districts. The agency is to report on the effectiveness of the guidelines in four years, and every year thereafter.