Apr 13 2007 4:15 AM
Smart Growth advocates key in on regional cooperation
By Robert Miller
The mixed-use redevelopment of the old Gilbert & Bennett factory in the Georgetown section of Redding is seen as one example of Smart Growth principles in effect.
It seems counter-intuitive, but it may take regional cooperation to preserve good neighborhoods within a town.
On Wednesday, panelists at a forum on Smart Growth discussed the need for the state to take a different approach to development -- one that preserves open space, slows the spread of suburban sprawl and rebuilds the state's inner cities.
"It's not a question of whether we grow, but how we'll grow," Heidi Green of 1000 Friends -- a pro-Smart Growth organization, who spoke at the forum sponsored by the Universalist Unitarian Congregation of Danbury.
Green -- along with urban planner David Kooris and Steven Patton, director of the Nature Conservancy's Devil's Den preserve in Redding and Weston -- spoke of how people in the state are increasingly starting to recognize that some problems are not well-served when there are 169 independent towns to deal with.
Green said under the current political structure, towns must compete against neighboring towns for development to build up their tax revenues, largely to pay for the ever-increasing cost of running a public school system.
"They need to get as much tax revenues out of development as possible," she said.
The end result is housing and development patterns that constantly push out from urban centers, eroding the state's existing open space.
It means people spend more time commuting than ever, more time on the road, and more money on gasoline. That means heavier commuter traffic and more air pollution.
Kooris is a senior planner with the Regional Plan Association, which helps towns and the three states of the greater New York City metropolitan region. The entire region is facing the same challenges as Connecticut.
"They can't be faced alone," Kooris said.
Patton of the Nature Conservancy pointed out that preserving natural resources is also always a regional effort, simply because rivers, mountain ridge lines, forests and wetlands couldn't care less about town boundary lines.
Nor can any town afford to buy a lot of land because of the cost of real estate in Fairfield County.
"But that's a good thing," Patton said. "It forces us to talk together, think together, plan together."
In recent months, the Smart Growth message -- that regions should concentrate growth in places where there are existing stores and office and train stations -- is catching on.
Gov. M. Jodi Rell has created the Office of Responsible Growth to help further Smart Growth goals in the state. And Green said there are several good examples in the state -- including the mixed-use redevelopment of the old Gilbert & Bennett factory in Georgetown, the Blue Back Square development in West Hartford, and the creation of a town green in Mansfield -- where Smart Growth principles are in effect.
Even a small town like Higganum has used community discussions to decide what the town center should look like, then changed roads and added sidewalks to promote that look.
"This isn't just a big city thing," she said.
Danbury City Planner Dennis Elpern, who attended the forum and took part in the fully engaged discussion afterward, pointed out that the proposed Kennedy Place development in Danbury -- to build 500 housing units on the former Amphenol site off Kennedy Avenue -- is another example of building housing in an urban center, near both the city bus lines and the Danbury rail station.
Green pointed out that such approaches can either create new neighborhoods or revive old ones. But she warned that at its worst, it can create gentrified neighborhoods that jack up rents and drive low-income people away.
"That's one of our greatest challenges," she said.
Kooris said Smart Growth works when architecture actually organizes the way people live and travel, and when people in a community are fully involved in planning the town's future.
"Some people are good at reading the numbers on a project," he said. "Some people like maps. Some people like models. You should always seek more input from people, not less."
Kooris said new developments will also succeed when the town and developers agree on what the town and a region can support.
"You need a flexible framework," he said.
Green said there are also looming pressures to build up even more of the region. The population of the United States now stands at about 300 million. It should top 400 million in less than 50 years.
"Connecticut is located between Boston and New York," she said. "A lot of people are going to want to move here."
But currently, Kooris said, the state is hemorrhaging young adults who cannot afford the price of housing in Connecticut.
And Elpern and others at the forum pointed out that in the Danbury area the wealthier suburban towns have often walked away from their responsibilities when it comes to building affordable housing.
"Americans are (conflicted) when it comes to Smart Growth," Elpern said. "They don't like suburban sprawl. But they don't like high-density housing either."
# Contact Robert Miller
or (203) 731-3345.
There will be a Forum on Responsible Growth on April 19 from 7 to 9 p.m. at New Milford Town Hall.
Connecticut Community Foundation and 1,000 Friends of Connecticut will sponsor the event in cooperation with the Litchfield Hills Greenprint, Housatonic Valley Association, Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, Northwest Conservation District, Working Lands Alliance and the Trust for Public Land.
The public is encouraged to attend.
* Forum focuses on Smart Growth Thu, Apr 12 2007
Friday, April 13, 2007
I attended this forum on Wednesday night. I am reprinting Robert Miller's excellent report here because News-Times articles generally go to archive within days, and then they are very difficult to find again. It's about time that the City of Danbury, the towns of Fairfield County, and the entire state of Connecticut, asked its citizens what kind of development they want to see here in the next 5, 10, or 20 years. Continuing to build more highways and turn more farmland into 2- and 3-acre zoned subdivisions is clearly a losing proposition in my view.