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At Housing Conference, Arguments Against Suburban Sprawl

DON STACOM

March 10, 2009

Overhauling Connecticut's public policies so that they encourage mixed-income, higher-density housing near transit lines can stop suburban sprawl, ease highway congestion and limit pollution.

That's the claim of Partnership for Strong Communities, a housing advocacy group that hosted a roundtable discussion with top state leaders Friday in Hartford.

At a time when towns, cities and the state itself are all desperately focused on balancing next year's budgets, the bigger challenge is restructuring the state's policies so that Connecticut stops losing young workers and positions itself for economic growth when the recession ends, speakers told an audience at The Lyceum.

"This is about how to be vibrant in the future," said Diane Randall, director of the association.

"We have to set the stage for the long term so Connecticut remains competitive and a great place to live," said state Economic Development Commissioner Joan McDonald.

The session drew a crowd of various activists and advocacy groups supporting social causes ranging from mass transit, affordable housing and environmental protection to historic preservation and urban renewal.

A common theme of speakers was that those causes must be tied together in revamped policies from state tax codes to regional development plans and municipal zoning rules.

"We have to break down the silos these things are connected," said state Rep. Brendan Sharkey, who is co-chairman of the legislature's planning and development committee. "And the advocacy groups have to work together."

Some of those groups acknowledge that their agendas run counter to the trend in recent decades of middle-class and wealthy residents abandoning the cities to live in suburbs and even rural towns.

That unchecked sprawl has consumed much of the state's scenic countryside, drained money and vitality from its cities, created highway congestion and generated tremendous carbon emissions because of ever-increasing distances between homes and workplaces, organizers of the forum said.

But with a new focus on reducing energy consumption, dozens of Connecticut towns have applied for the HomeConnecticut program. It offers incentives to communities that allow mid- to high-density housing development around mass transit hubs, typically train or commuter bus stations. The goal is to get people out of cars and onto mass transit, and to re-establish close-knit communities instead of isolated subdivisions, speakers said.

"Some of our cities have torn themselves down to build parking lots and garages there's just a sea of cars," said Norman Garrick, director of the Center for Transportation and Urban Planning at the University of Connecticut. "Places like Portland and Denver are remaking themselves using transit."

Tim Bannon, director of the Connecticut Housing Finance Authority, said that there's hard-nosed business sense in overhauling the state's trend toward ever-expanding suburban living.

"Between 1990 and 2006, Connecticut lost more of its population of (ages) 20 to 34 the most of all 50 states. We're not building affordable places for them to live," Bannon said.

"We're spending $130,000 per pupil from kindergarten to 12th grade, we're spending billions on state universities, and what happens after all that investment?" Bannon asked. "They take their skills and go to another state, and enhance the economic development there."

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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