A few weeks ago, Gov. M. Jodi Rell went to the Windsor railroad station to announce a new initiative to battle the sprawling development that is consuming Connecticut's countryside.
Now that Mrs. Rell is officially at the throttle for the next four years, it's time for this train to leave the station.
Mrs. Rell issued an executive order creating a new agency, the Office of Responsible Growth, in the state's Office of Policy and Management. The new agency will convene a steering council made up of the state agencies involved in land use: economic development, environmental protection, transportation, agriculture and public health, as well as the Connecticut Housing Finance Authority and the Connecticut Development Authority.
This group will then assemble a set of policies to encourage growth in town centers and along transit corridors, create more transit options and more transit-oriented development, protect vistas and other natural resources, and create a better mix of housing choices.
The new office will be headed by Undersecretary W. David Levasseur, chief of OPM's intergovernmental policy division. A lawyer, conservationist and former first selectman of Killingworth, Mr. Levasseur directed the state Plan of Conservation and Development, which has a definite smart growth bent.
Mr. Levasseur promises to broaden the reach of the steering council to gain information and advice from other state agencies as well as municipal, quasi-public, university, nonprofit and private entities. He likened the relationship to that between the U.N.'s Security Council and General Assembly.
He's right to make the process as open and inclusive as possible. Many local officials do not trust the state, to put it bluntly. They have to be part of the endeavor, and must buy into the notion that responsible growth is in their best interest. If they don't, the effort will fail.
One of the first tasks of the steering council will be to do an inventory of the smart growth tools already available in the state. Although the state was slow to respond to the challenge presented by low-density exurban development, it has a number of planning and funding mechanisms - village district legislation, brownfield remediation, historic tax credits and open space acquisition, among others - meant to encourage sound development.
Mr. Levasseur said such a survey will tell the council as well as local officials and developers what is available, what needs to be coordinated and where the gaps are.
When this is accomplished, the council will face the challenge of determining where to encourage growth and where to discourage it. This will take regional planning, a traditional weakness in Connecticut.
Mrs. Rell has said that regional planning cannot usurp local zoning. That leaves one practical alternative, which is to plan around natural resources. The state Department of Environmental Protection under Commissioner Gina McCarthy has moved aggressively to protect water supplies and other natural resources. The department is updating its "green plan," through which it identifies which parcels of open space to target for preservation.
Perhaps this work can be the basis for regional plans that will protect natural resources and direct growth to the already built areas. There should also be incentives for communities to increase population density in certain areas. This is the essence of smart growth.
Smart growth can happen here, but it won't unless Gov. Rell and legislative leaders work together to make it a top priority. In so doing, they will be protecting the state's quality of life. That should not be a partisan concern.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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