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Region Agenda, Part 3: How To Act Regionally

Hartford Courant

December 29, 2009

Since the end of World War II, central Connecticut has been beset by suburban sprawl. Hartford has lost almost a third of its peak population, while former rural towns have boomed, although with low-density, auto-driven development.

In recent years, state government has tried to counter this trend with smart, or responsible, growth policies. As Greater Hartford thinks about becoming a more cohesive metro region, it must plan to grow smartly to save energy, cut pollution, preserve open space and save farms. The region should:

1.REUSE AND REHABILITATE EXISTING INFRASTRUCTURE by focusing development in the town centers and transit corridors, not in the region's dwindling open space. That means, among other things, encouraging historic preservation and restoring brownfield sites

2. PLAN REGIONALLY. The region should have a major downtown and an array of smaller town centers that are compact, lively, mixed-use and walkable.

3.EXPAND HOUSING OPPORTUNITIES and transportation options, including bicycles.

These principles are embedded in the state and regional plans of conservation and development. The problem with these plans is that they are mostly advisory. (One positive step, from a 2007 responsible growth law, is a requirement that when state agencies give a grant of $200,000 or more for real estate acquisition or development, the project must be consistent with the state plan.)

Metropolitan Hartford cannot succeed as a region if it becomes an undifferentiated swath of strip malls and subdivisions. We need lively cities and towns and scenic forests and farms. The regional and state plans are a sensible guide. To assure that development more closely follow the smart-growth principles in these plans, the state could:

4. CREATE MODEL ZONING REGULATIONS and other land-use tools so that towns are able to create the kind of mixed-use town centers envisioned by the regional and state plans. Traditional zoning separated uses; tried to keep the smelly factories away from the homes, etc. Now most of the factories are gone but the zoning rules remain, prohibiting what good planning is trying to encourage. Hamden this year became the first town in New England to embrace a different zoning philosophy, adopting a new code based more on the form of buildings rather than their use. Officials believe the new code will encourage mixed-use development along the town's three major north-south corridors. Some other towns, including Simsbury, are also looking at "form-based" codes.

5. GIVE GRANTS TO SUPPORT THE POLICIES IN THE PLAN. The state cannot tell people where to live or build. But it can put its own money behind the kind of development its own plan calls for. The legislature made $11 million in regional incentive grants available in 2008, and they were snapped up quickly for regional shared-service projects. Budget constraints took the funding in 2009, although more of the federal stimulus funds could have been aimed at regional projects.

With the state facing a potential $6 billion deficit by 2013, regional budgeting might become a necessity. A state blue ribbon commission has been formed to work with towns in finding, and funding, regional efficiencies.

How might this work?

State Rep. Brendan Sharkey, who will head the commission, offered a hypothetical example involving the Education Cost Sharing grants, which bring state aid to local schools. He said it might be possible to keep the classroom portion of the grants going to towns, while regionalizing ancillary functions such as food and janitorial services.

"We have to look at what makes sense to regionalize," he said. And then do it.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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