State Planning in the Northeast

Robert D. Yaro and Raymond R. Janairo, July 1, 2000

Since its inception just over a year ago, the Northeast State Planning (NESP) Leadership Retreat has been a valuable professional development tool for state planners from Maine to Maryland. This collaboration between Lincoln Institute and Regional Plan Association (RPA) brings together high-level state officials to discuss current state planning issues. After only two annual meetings the participants from 11 northeast states already have implemented ideas discussed with their peers, and a few states have initiated and built smart growth planning and community development schemes inspired by this interstate exchange.

At the second retreat held in March 2000, the participants shared new ideas and success stories, addressed “the do’s and don’ts” of building state planning programs, and took steps toward establishing an economic development program for the northeast corridor. They compared state growth management initiatives in the Northeast to those occurring in the rest of the country, and traded caveats and suggestions on how to sustain political support in the face of a changing economy, bipartisan politics and conflicting interests.

Smart Growth Across the Nation

According to John M. DeGrove, Eminent Scholar of Growth Management and Development at Florida Atlantic University, a new and bipartisan commitment to smart growth is developing across the United States. No longer is the nation enshrouded in a “no-planning” or “planning in isolation” mindset by state and local governments.

As the keynote speaker at the retreat, DeGrove outlined prerequisite factors crucial to a sustainable smart growth program. A primary realization is that the protection of natural systems and the revitalization of urban systems on a local level should happen concurrently with support and coordination from state agencies. Executive leadership can strengthen state legislative initiatives and is usually crucial to program development and implementation. The involvement of diverse coalitions can also be critical in accelerating a smart growth agenda at the state level.

For a progressive smart growth program to survive, there must be an impetus to place growth management in a state or regional framework bolstered by strong incentives and disincentives. State actions linked to federal programs-TEA 21, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the possible renewed funding of the Land and Water Conservation Fund-can enhance the success of strategic, comprehensive planning. Finally, bottom-up coalition building, grassroots efforts, and state agency coordination should be used in place of or in conjunction with top-down approaches. Experiences in Maryland and Pennsylvania have shown that such processes are effective.

Patricia Salkin, associate dean and director of the Government Law Center of Albany Law School in New York, is also at the forefront of growth management research. She has compiled and analyzed information about state planning programs across the country, citing gubernatorial support and legislative reforms as the primary factors driving smart growth programs. She reported that gubernatorial support is generally strong in the Northeast and is growing in such states as Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Illinois, Minnesota, North Carolina, Utah and Wisconsin.

Salkin mentioned three main categories of legislative reform: 1) recodification and tightening of existing laws, 2) authorization for innovative and flexible controls, and 3) major overhauls. As examples, Oklahoma’s Senate Bill 1151 created a Planning and Land Use Legislative Study Task Force to evaluate the effectiveness of current laws, review model legislation, and identify public information needs; California’s Assembly Bill 1575, encourages innovative land use policies such as unified county plans; and Tennessee is undertaking a study to overhaul its planning and growth management framework and replace it with a smart growth program.

Sustaining Political Support

Sustaining political support for smart growth plans is a challenging task. Bipartisan politics, influential lobbying interests, changes in administration, and home rule are just a few of the most commonly mentioned obstacles to comprehensive, regional programs that address urban, suburban, rural and conservation issues. Arguably, the current strong economy may be facilitating smart growth incentives as many states, especially in the Northeast, offer monetary and capital rewards to municipalities whose policies are consistent with state and regional plans.

A number of common practices on this topic were outlined at the retreat. State agencies such as the office of planning or the department of community affairs may develop coalitions with entities other than fellow state agencies, especially if the “state” is seen as a meddling force in local issues. Some success stories tell of coalition building with elder communities, religious leaders and faith-based communities. Others have tried the silent partner approach in a public/private venture. Most importantly, the political force of local voices can be potent in getting local officials, state congressional representatives and agencies involved.

One key area that requires cautious handling is the presentation and dissemination of information. When plans move from general to specific, care must be taken to allow a broad range of interests to perceive personal and community benefits at the present time and through continued participation in the future. The use of proper terminology is also crucial. For example, in a politically driven world, executives may strive to separate themselves from counterparts with original ideas and phraseology. A state can gain distinction by interchanging the prevalent term “smart growth” with “community preservation,” or “locally designated growth areas” with “urban growth boundaries.”

Political support also can be sustained by creating educational programs to address the planning needs of a community. Training and curricula can be developed for elected public officials and for citizens appointed to planning boards, board of appeals and historic preservation committees. Some efforts have even begun to institutionalize planning studies at the elementary, middle and high school levels. Stamford, Connecticut, for example, is engaged in a program modeled after the recycling movement to encourage school children to bring home planning issues and initiate their family’s involvement in the development and growth of their communities.

Revitalizing the Northeast Corridor

Numerous areas around the globe have adopted the regional corridor concept of economic development. Major capital campaigns are in the process of feasibility analysis or implementation in such diverse locations as California’s San Francisco to San Diego corridor and China’s Beijing to Shanghai corridor. Representatives from several northeast states reported that they are working collaboratively to encourage the economic development of their corridor. Transportation, especially the utilization of rail, is an essential component of the strategy to move goods and people more efficiently throughout the Northeast. Of particular interest is linking the economies of mid-sized cities with the region’s megalopolis anchors-Washington, DC, New York and Boston. The intermediary cities include Providence, RI; Hartford, New Haven, Bridgeport and Stamford, CT; Newark and Trenton, NJ; Philadelphia, PA; Baltimore, MD; and Wilmington, DE.

This planning group, led by the Regional Plan Association, will create a vision and mission statement for the project and then conduct an economic analysis to quantify the benefits. Once a plan is formulated, its cost will be calculated and a timeline will detail the phasing-in of each segment. The participants will then begin an outreach effort to gain backing from various state and local officials, as well as advocacy groups and community representatives. Amtrak, the main source of passenger rail in the corridor, plans to have its high-speed regional train service on-line in late 2000, and a number of partnerships could evolve from the already active advocacy efforts of several groups, such as the National Corridors Initiative/NCI, the I-95 Corridor Coalition, and the Coalition of Northeastern Governors (CONEG). A diverse coalition of business, civic and nonprofit organizations may be instrumental in advancing a regional economic development instrument.

A Southeastern Massachusetts Case Study

The planning retreat culminated with an exercise that looked at the rural southeastern region of Massachusetts where the Commonwealth and the Executive Office of Environmental Affairs (EOEA) are planning to cultivate a bioreserve. Now in its initial stages, this program seeks to preserve vast tracts of valuable land, including forests and wetlands, and curb haphazard and uncoordinated development. The area of concern is the largest high-yield, sole-source aquifer in Massachusetts, with close to 70,000 acres of cranberry bogs, areas of endangered habitat, and a cluster of pine barrens. The Commonwealth is exploring various avenues to preserve these natural resources.

Through a statewide Community Preservation Initiative, the Commonwealth has begun to provide technical assistance to towns in the region by helping them forecast their commercial/industrial buildouts based on current zoning and population estimates. The EOEA hopes this information will help the communities make better decisions regarding future development and put this knowledge to use on a cooperative regional level to create beneficial growth plans for all nearby cities and towns.

The participants emphasized three considerations that specifically addressed the issues raised by the EOEA, and that are transferable to other regional planning initiatives. First, negotiated processes, whether between state government and a municipality, between municipalities, or between a community and a state agency, are effective in consensus building and cutting costs. Investing in consensus building at the beginning of the planning process can preclude litigation costs and the costs of stalled development due to community opposition. Second, technical assistance must be provided in a manner that keeps communities engaged throughout the entire analysis stage. Engagement increases support for the results and demystifies the “technical experience,” thus giving a sense of empowerment and control to those most affected by the final plan. Finally, local government involvement is key to any planning process, since local officials usually have their fingers on the pulse of community vitality and needs, and can use that knowledge to ensure effective programs.

Alternatively, participants mentioned a few pitfalls that need to be avoided in the context of this southeastern Massachusetts case. The original mapping of the bioreserve maximized the layout of open spaces and land in need of protection. However, in the desire to classify maximum acreage for protection, some new boundaries would have cut through municipalities, leaving the potential of an insider/outsider dichotomy. In areas where home rule is a coveted prize, as in Massachusetts towns, government programs are often met with suspicion and resistance. Further, if state government presents an agenda for preservation with lines drawn and boundaries sited without local input, communities will often react adversely to any plans, regardless of the goodwill and intent of the program. The ideal action to preclude these problems is to offer technical assistance to achieve through collaboration the preservation that the state ultimately wants. Preferably, the entire municipality should be represented in any regional framework for southeastern Massachusetts to facilitate inter- and intra-muncipal support for the desired program.

In conclusion, the discussions at the Second Annual NESP Retreat offered a great deal of insight into the experiences of the 11 states represented. Though they share a common geographic location, they have taken many approaches to address future growth and development. The retreat offered instructive lessons on the common theories, practices and principles that are useful in building a diverse array of programs appropriate to each state’s local conditions, and it underscored the value of continuing such meetings.

Robert D. Yaro is executive director and Raymond R. Janairo is senior research associate of the Regional Plan Association, based in New York City.