October 7, 2006
By CHRISTOPHER KEATING, Capitol Bureau Chief
By executive order Friday, Gov. M. Jodi Rell created a new state office to help control "rampant, ill-conceived" development that she says is threatening the character of Connecticut communities.
Rell unveiled the Office of Responsible Growth that will coordinate numerous state agencies that oversee land use and will attempt to stop the spread of what is commonly known as "sprawl." The new office will operate within Rell's budget department, and she said Friday that she hopes it can be handled by the existing staff.
Less than five weeks before the gubernatorial election, Rell is addressing an issue that has long concerned her Democratic challenger, John DeStefano, who as mayor of New Haven charmed a blue ribbon commission in 2003 that studied smart growth and the property tax burden.
"I don't think the governor has any real commitment to this at all," DeStefano said in an interview Friday night. "It's the governor's job to coordinate state policy. You don't need an office to do that."
Citing statistics compiled by the University of Connecticut, the governor said that from 1985 to 2002, 119 square miles of open space were developed, and an average of 18 acres of forest per day were lost.
Standing on the steps of the Windsor train station, Rell said she is worried by the grim figures. During that same period, the percentage of the state's impervious surfaces - such as concrete, asphalt and rooftops - increased 22 percent.
Rell said her appearance marked an official announcement, not a campaign event. But that did not stop about 30 DeStefano supporters from protesting at the event, standing silently but holding signs that criticized her recent vetoes of a state contracting reform bill and her administration's handling of a faulty I-84 construction project.
The key to sprawl, DeStefano said, is that municipalities allow construction of developments - including big box stores - because they need the property tax revenue the projects generate. Without reducing the dependence on those commercial property taxes, he said, sprawl will continue.
"These towns don't want to close the orchards," DeStefano said. "They don't want to fill in the fields. But they have to pay for the school budget."
Rell's campaign spokesman, Rich Harris, said the governor has been committed to preserving open space and farmland since she took office in July 2004. "It's not simply a commitment of words but a commitment of deeds and the financial resources of the state," Harris said. "The governor has proposed real property tax reform. It's called not paying car taxes."
Cliff Thornton, the Green Party candidate for governor, said he was unimpressed by the governor's executive order.
"It lacked real substance," he said. "A lot of it was real platitudes."
Rell said she is awaiting recommendations from a task force examining property taxes. In the meantime, she said she hopes to revamp the Education Cost Sharing grant formula, one of the largest state grants to cities and towns, and resurrect her proposal to eliminate property taxes on vehicles. But Rell said taxes are not the entire answer to ending sprawl.
"We have to look at ways to make it easier for towns to plan for their future, and I think a lot of this will be very helpful for them," she said.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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