Smart Ideas for Economic Development in Connecticut

May 5, 2003

We have reached the point in the Legislative Session where the majority of Committees have reached their deadline for reporting out their bills. In the Committee on Planning and Development, of which I am ranking member, a wide variety of progressive legislation came up for debate. One that specifically stood out and one I am firmly putting my support behind is the idea of smart growth, which if it becomes law, would vastly improve economic development throughout the state of Connecticut.

The proposed plan, sHB 6640 An Act Concerning Smart Growth, would steer new developments towards underused land in already developed areas and leave open space in less developed areas. Similar legislation has been proposed in past legislative sessions, but disagreements over specific language in the bill meant it never became law. However, this session, I am pleased with the way the legislation has been drafted and hopeful it will be brought to a vote on the Senate Floor.

Perhaps the most notable aspect of the bill is that it gives local towns more say over where and what type of development can occur in their areas. There’s little doubt that local leaders are firmly in touch with the degree of development their local communities and its citizens want and, more importantly, can realistically handle. That’s not to say the state should not have a say since after all, many projects are state-funded, however, the provisions in this bill do not eliminate any parties from the process, but rather increases local and state cooperation in these matters. It puts some checks on the system to ensure the smartest and most effective development in the best possible areas. What is most important is that towns and their residents determine the planning scheme for their areas.

In addition, the state must develop Priority Funding Areas (PFA’s) and state agencies must target development assistance in these areas based on the bill’s criteria, which awards points based on a project’s location and the extent to which it addresses specific planning goals. It also sets conditions under which agencies can fund these development projects outside of the PFA’s and exempts other types of projects from the PFA funding. Furthermore, the town will designate where these PFA’s will be located.

The bill also adds factors OPM must consider when it revises the state’s five-year Plan of Conservation and Development. While currently OPM must give the most serious consideration for state-funded projects in areas where the roads, sewers, and other supporting infrastructure already exist, the smart growth bill would add broad transportation, energy, and air policies to this list as well as identify specific transportation proposals and consider ways to conserve and develop greenways.

Their revision to the Plan of C & D must also promote transportation options that reduce traffic congestion by identifying geographic areas that allow people to get from homes, stores, parks, and job sites on foot or give them access to mass transit.

Astute readers will notice that these regulations would seem to discourage excess development in rural areas, which is one major intention of the bill. Such a strategy would help Connecticut preserve some of its valuable open space, and thus has been endorsed by The Sierra Club. In testimony before the P & D Committee, they noted that patterns have developed over the past 50 years that have led to air and water pollution, traffic, inequitable economy, loss of habitat, and loss of community. They contend, and I concur, that this bill is a step in the right direction towards promoting long-term changes in these areas.

I want to make it clear that I am not against economic growth and the expansion of commerce in Connecticut, however, we have to be cautious of where and to what extent we expand. The negative consequences of developing into unprepared areas can often far outweigh the benefits. Sometimes we can see these consequences by simply looking out our windows – clogged highways, the loss of farms and open space, and spoiled scenic views. Often the consequences affect our checkbook, as property tax rates are hiked to fund new sewers, roads, schools, and other infrastructure in small rural towns. Other times the consequences develop gradually such as the exodus of business people from established urban centers into areas unprepared to handle increased population.

Although some of these regulations are new, many are simply adjustments or reinforcements on existing laws. All of them, however, will go a long ways towards improving growth in Connecticut. We will give local communities a stronger say over development in their towns, help preserve valuable open space, improve commerce by developing only in the most prepared areas, and take a proactive role in preventing unwanted economic expansion. It is an idea whose time has come and I am hopeful my fellow legislators agree.

If you have any questions on this legislation, please do not hesitate to call my office toll free at 1(800) 842-1421 or visit me at my office hours. I look forward to any input you may have on this topic.