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Stop Sprawl

Developing Effective State-Level Growth Management Legislation


From Oregon to Rhode Island to Florida, states are playing a key role in controlling suburban sprawl and helping communities grow on their own terms. This summary reviews existing state programs for managing growth and discusses how to craft an effective policy platform for new legislation. With your help, your state could be the next to protect its long-term livability.

States have the potential to play a key role in combating sprawl because they hold the authority to regulate land use under the U. S. Constitution. Through special legislation, they have in turn empowered local communities to manage the development process within their boundaries in order to protect the health, safety, and welfare of their residents. However, if need be, states can modify this framework and establish a more systematic structure for dealing with change.

Key Components

To date, eleven states have passed comprehensive planning and growth management legislation. These include: Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington. The systems devised by these states generally include four basic components:

  1. Incentives or requirements for comprehensive planning by individual communities and regions to guide their future development;
  2. A process for ensuring that the plans drafted are consistent with each other and with
    state goals;
  3. Clear mechanisms for implementing the plans;
  4. Financial and technical assistance to help communities successfully accomplish the goals of the program.

1) Comprehensive Planning

Existing state programs all encourage or require comprehensive planning at the local level, and often at the regional level as well. These plans are generally coordinated by a state-level plan that establishes certain program goals such as involving the public, protecting important natural areas, and promoting economic development. Some states such as Florida, Oregon, and Rhode Island make local planning mandatory and set deadlines for plan completion. Others such as Georgia and Vermont establish incentives to encourage local planning, but leave the final decision on whether to participate in the hands of local communities. All programs provide technical assistance to help communities through the planning process and include some provision for ensuring the periodic updating of plans.

2) Consistency

Once local plans are drafted, they are reviewed for consistency by a regional or state agency. Plans can be reviewed not only for their compatibility with those of surrounding communities ("horizontal" consistency), but also with regional and state plans ("vertical" consistency). They are also checked to make sure they are internally consistent. In addition, some states such as Florida, Maryland, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Washington require that the plans drafted by a community be consistent with its development regulations and with its program for making capital improvements. To add more certainty to the review process, some states place a limit on the period during which the regional or state agency can review a plan.

3) Implementation Mechanisms

In most states, the primary implementation mechanism is the requirement that local plans be consistent with local development regulations and local government spending on infrastructure. However, in some cases, additional measures are established. Perhaps the strictest is the requirement in Florida that infrastructure improvements keep pace with new development. Known as "concurrency," this stipulation is backed up by the threat of a moratorium on new building permits in the community if infrastructure development lags behind growth. To help ensure compliance, a special state infrastructure fund was established to help finance improvements.

As part of a legislative package, states can also grant special authorization to local jurisdictions to use specific growth management techniques such as impact fees or transfer of developments programs (see pamphlet titled A Growth Management Primer). These measures can enhance the ability of communities to implement their comprehensive plans and address local development issues.

Finally, a critical component of any state program is an appeals process to provide individuals, communities, or agencies with an opportunity to have their grievances reviewed if they feel a ruling made under the law is unjustified or unduly harmful. The most effective body established to date has been the Land Use Board of Appeals (LUBA) set up in Oregon to rule exclusively on land use disputes.

4) Funding and Technical Assistance

No state program is complete without a variety of funding incentives and provisions for technical assistance to help communities meet the goals of the growth management legislation. Virtually every state has established a grants program to finance planning activities and, in some cases, plan implementation. States such as Florida and Vermont have given participating communities access to specially-created trust funds for protecting natural resources, developing affordable housing, and/or making infrastructure improvements. These states along with Washington have also empowered qualifying communities to use special financing and taxing powers to raise revenues. At one point, Maine even established a fund to help communities uphold their plans in the face of legal challenges.

In addition to ensuring stable funding, states also invariably provide compliance assistance to help local communities meet the requirements of the new legislation. In addition, many states provide special dispute resolution services to help resolve conflicts between communities. In these ways, they improve the chances for successfully implementing the program.

With sufficient grassroots and legislative support, your state could be the next to pass effective growth management legislation.

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