What's The Opposite of Smart Growth?
We need to make sure we don't "run out of land."
My colleague Margie Peterson recently wrote about the benefits of "smart growth" land use policies for cities like Easton and Bethlehem, whose dense downtowns are benefitting from renewed interest in city living.
But if human-scale, walkable development is "smart," it's worth reflecting on what's not smart: the low-density sprawl, McMansions and Big Box shopping centers the region was building furiously in the outlying townships before the housing bubble burst.
The reason this kind of development isn't smart is that it's simply not sustainable, economically, fiscally or environmentally.
Over the past 10 years, the Lehigh Valley has built miles and miles of infrastructure with no regard for how residents would pay for the lifelong maintenance costs.
Just look to the east to see how this will end: New Jersey is quickly running out of horizontal space, and eastern Pennsylvania could easily find itself in a similar situation if we don't get a handle on sprawl. These development practices are "unsustainable" because they literally cannot continue.
The good news is that more and more people are wising up to the problem here. Opinion polls consistently show that supermajorities of Lehigh Valley residents are concerned about the loss of open space resulting from land-hungry suburban development.
Downtown business groups are waking up to the fact that sprawl sucks customers and investment out of the center city economies. As Samantha Schwartz of the Downtown Bethlehem Association put it, "it's not us vs. us - it's us vs. the mall."
The bad news is that not everyone has learned from the mistakes of the 2000's, and they think we should start back up right where we left off.
Through some rather fishy negotiations with Lower Macungie Supervisors, David Jaindl secured the township's approval to build 700 homes, 4 million square feet of warehouses, a 443,000-square-foot shopping center, and a convenience store with 16 gasoline pumps and a sit-down restaurant on 600 acres of farmland in Lower Macungie Township.
A group of neighbors is challenging the legality of the zoning changes, so we don't yet know whether it will happen, but the fight has brought to light a glaring flaw in Pennsylvania's planning code: Regional planning commissions like the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission are completely toothless.
Pennsylvania's planning code makes the LVPC an advisory body with no legal authority. They have written a very good Comprehensive Plan, but it does not have the force of law, so local officials are free to ignore their recommendations.
This is exactly what happened in Lower Macungie. The LVPC's Southwestern Lehigh Regional Comprehensive Plan designates this land for agricultural use. LVPC recommended that the Lower Macungie commissioners reject Mr. Jaindl's proposal on these grounds, but they were ignored.
Mr. Jaindl and the Township Supervisors argue that they were not obligated by law to follow the LVPC's recommendations, so they approved the new sprawl.
Whether or not the changes amount to unconstitutional spot-zoning is another matter, but Mr. Jaindl's argument is sadly on solid footing when it comes to the planning code.
This is a big problem for everyone who wants to see a thriving Valley economy that preserves open space: there is currently no legal authority to halt sprawl at the regional level.
Despite the destructive impact of sprawl in Lower Macungie on the whole region's economy, the rest of the Valley's residents don't get any say in whether it gets built. It's not a fair fight between downtown businesses and the mall if residents and elected officials in the core cities can't actually do anything to stop more malls from getting built.
The best way to bring sense to the region's development practices is by changing the state planning code so that municipalities are legally required to follow the LVPC's Comprehensive Plan.
The current system gives each of the Valley's 62 municipal governments the incentive to try to get its own Wal-Mart, its own highway exit shopping center, its own housing developments named after the farm it displaced.
The cumulative impact is predictably terrible, so we need a way to bring order to these decisions so that we don't run out of land like New Jersey.