Smart Growth Law Is Coming to New York. Now What Happens?

buffalo_sprawl.jpgThe Buffalo area has tripled in size even while its population has stayed flat. Will New York’s new smart growth law help? Graphic via Joe the Planner.

New York’s smart growth legislation is about to become law, so it’s worth looking at precisely how much it will do. Smart growth laws from around the country offer some perspective: New York’s law could be transformative, but the devil’s in the details. To really curb suburban sprawl, smart growth is going to need a cooperative governor, active watchdogs, and a thorough plan for implementation.

Assembly Member Sam Hoyt’s smart growth bill passed the State Senate on Friday, sending it to the governor’s desk. Governor Paterson looks extremely likely to sign the bill; a spokesperson noted that the governor’s smart growth director helped craft the legislation and that "Governor Paterson has consistently said that Smart Growth should be regular protocol in state government, and not just a vague theory." 

When signed, the law will require that all state infrastructure spending comply with smart growth principles, including directing spending toward already developed areas or growth zones designated in local comprehensive plans. In theory, that means the state DOT would have to fix existing roads before building new lanes into the suburbs, for example, or that the state Dormitory Authority would build campuses where students don’t have to drive to class. But what will it do in practice?

The law has big potential. "The New York state legislation is very exciting," said Ilana Preuss, Smart Growth America’s chief of staff. "It’s obviously a sea change for the state." The carrot of state dollars, she said, has proven powerful in states like Maryland and Massachusetts. 

To see the promise of New York’s law, all you have to do is look across the Hudson. "New Jersey has the same type of policy regime, where they are looking to prioritize spending in certain areas," said Jay Corbalis of New Jersey Future, the state smart growth advocacy organization. New Jersey hasn’t been transformed into a smart growth utopia, but Corbalis pointed to some major accomplishments of its law. 

In areas designated for growth, said Corbalis, the state’s Board of Public Utilities will help finance new infrastructure costs for developers; outside, they’re on their own. When plans for a new light rail line from Philadelphia were proposed, he continued, three different routes were considered. One passed through existing town centers while the others ran through greenfields. A report from the state’s planning commission concluded that only the first complied with the state’s smart growth plan, and it got built. "There could be hundreds of examples like that," said Corbalis.

How many similar smart growth victories this bill ushers in, however, depends on implementation. "In and of themselves, these laws might not be that effective," said Corbalis. "You can have the greatest regulations on paper," he continued, "but if you don’t have the buy-in from the governor and his staff, that really has an impact on whether they’re followed or not." Advocates, he urged, need to hold the state’s feet to the fire to ensure follow through.

Following the smart growth law may be particularly tough in certain areas, said Gerrit Knaap, executive director of the University of Maryland’s National Center for Smart Growth Research and Education. In Maryland, for example, the state carved out an exemption to their smart growth law for rehabbing old septic systems. "Do you allow them to fail?" he asked. Cutting off economic development funds to rural communities is another hard political lift, said Knaap. "Be modest in your expectation of how much impact this is going to have," he cautioned.

Precisely where the lines get drawn is another sticking point. "That’s the part that has been trouble for other states," said Preuss. In Maryland, she argued, the state’s priority funding areas were drawn too widely, grandfathering in the sprawling fringe as a smart growth investment. New York, which doesn’t yet have a clearly defined map of where investment is to be encouraged, will soon have to take on the politically explosive task of drawing those lines.

Though the benefits of smart growth won’t materialize for years, it should become clear relatively quickly whether this law is having the desired effect. Peter Fleischer, the head of Empire State Future, is focusing on the governor, working to make sure he hires commissioners interested in enforcing the smart growth law and keeping around the state’s smart growth cabinet. Corbalis advised advocates to keep an eye on new administrative rules coming out of the state; if they mention the smart growth law, that’s a very good sign. Knaap pointed to bureaucratic capacity as the tell; it will take manpower inside each agency, he said, to shift from business as usual.

While this law will make a difference, shifting our state spending to more efficient and more sustainable projects, a lot depends on the next governor. Will he step up?

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