Bacon’s Rebellion/James Bacon The War on Sprawl

Bacon’s Rebellion/James Bacon  The War on Sprawl

Early in the Kaine administration, Parris Glendening, former governor of Maryland and prominent advocate of “smart growth,” held a workshop in Richmond under the auspices of the Governors Institute on Community Design.

That session led to informal meetings of five members of the governor’s cabinet — the secretaries of Transportation, Natural Resources, Finance, Administration and Commerce & Trade — to discuss how to implement smart growth, a philosophy that favors more compact, walkable and transit-oriented development.

Then, with little fanfare, Gov. Timothy M. Kaine moved earlier this month to formalize that group. In Executive Order 69, he announced the creation of a “Sub-Cabinet on Community Investment” tasked with the goal of promoting more economically and environmentally sustainable communities. Secretary of Natural Resources L. Preston Bryant, Jr., who also leads the Governor’s Commission on Climate Change, was appointed chair of the sub-cabinet.

Over the summer, the Department of Planning and Budget will comb through the state budget to identify sources of discretionary funds that the Kaine administration can use to reward smart growth. The group will convene at least monthly to strategize on how to spend those moneys to better effect.

Gov. Kaine has done more to inject “smart growth” thinking into the administration of state government than any governor in Virginia history. The conservation/ environmental community lauded the move as a limited step in the right direction. “The governor is on the right track with his new sub-cabinet on community investment tasked with promoting smart, sustainable growth by ensuring that state funds are invested in projects that reduce suburban sprawl,” said Lisa Guthrie, executive director of the Virginia League of Conservation Voters in an open letter last week.

But Guthrie added, the move was only the beginning. While discretionary spending may measure in the tens of millions of dollars, the transportation budget measures in the billions of dollars. “The place to start changing priorities,” she said, “is with the billions of dollars we spend each year on transportation.”

As articulated in Executive Order 69, there are two driving forces behind the governor’s smart growth initiative: One is to conserve land, the other to address traffic congestion.

“Over the past decade,” says EO 69, “the Commonwealth has lost over 60,000 acres per year, or approximately 165 acres a day, to development.” With state population projected to grow 23 percent by 2030, the pace of land consumption in Virginia could accelerate.

The Kaine document repeats many of the key tenets of the smart growth philosophy. “Sprawling development increases traffic congestion, lengthens commutes, discourages walking and biking, and diminishes our quality of life,” it says. “Our solutions must strive to link planning efforts in transportation and land use more closely together.”

To encourage a long-term approach to development in Virginia, the order reads, state agencies must “better coordinate their work and find ways to provide incentives and technical assistance to localities. They must ensure that agency investments are directed to areas with existing infrastructure, encourage compact and mixed-use development, create diverse housing opportunities, and promote innovation.”

The Sub-Cabinet on Community Investment is the vehicle that Kaine has designated to coordinate those activities. To guide the cabinet secretaries, Executive Order 69 has laid out the Governor’s Principles of Sustainable Community Investment, which include:

Invest in business innovation. “Inspire human ingenuity and financial capital.” Encourage natural resource-based businesses, such as energy, agriculture, forestry, fisheries and recreation/tourism, to pioneer sustainable practices. Assist emerging research and industries, and encourage existing industries to become more sustainable.

Invest in existing infrastructure. “Encourage the rehabilitation and adaptive re-use of existing infrastructure, giving preference to preservation and reuse of historic structures, rehabilitation of existing housing and schools, and redevelopment of brownfields.” Also, focus job-creation initiatives on companies located near existing infrastructure, housing, workforce and transportation facilities.

Invest in compact development. Create walkable, mixed-use districts within communities. Ensure that new state facilities and buildings contribute to compact development and the revitalization of urban centers.

Protect and restore Virginias natural resources. Clean up Virginia’s waterways, improve air quality, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and protect wildlife habitat, cultural resources and working landscapes.

Conserve natural resources. Eliminate waste of water, energy and materials. Use land, energy, water and materials efficiently. Increase the supply of renewable fuels.

Invest in diverse housing opportunities. Encourage the location of housing close to jobs, transportation options and public services. Encourage energy-efficient housing.

Invest in transportation choices. Make available alternatives to automobile travel such as rail, transit, teleworking, walking, and bicycling. Provide intermodal connections. 

Take a long-term view. “Look beyond immediate short-term capital costs so as to take account of future operational, maintenance, and other value savings.”

To ensure that state agencies apply these principles, Kaine has asked them to make quarterly reports on “how the use of [discretionary] funds has aligned with the principles.”

By and large, I find these principles to be sound. (The only one I would caveat is the exhortation to invest in transportation choices: It’s a good idea, as long as all alternatives are evaluated and prioritized on the basis of congestion mitigated per dollar.)

My concern is that coordinating state agencies alone may not accomplish much. True, Virginia’s economic development programs can influence where some jobs are located. The state’s housing programs can influence where some houses are located. The state’s building-and- construction budget can influence where state office buildings and other amenities are located. The state’s conservation budget can influence where open land is located. Clearly, it would be advantageous for the cabinet secretaries overseeing the allocation of these resources to talk to one another.

But it’s not enough for state officials to coordinate amongst themselves. They also need to talk to local government officials who approve comprehensive plans, spend local infrastructure dollars and make rezoning decisions. And those dialogs should be conducted in concert with the decision-making for the allocation of transportation dollars.

Bottom line: Coordinating state investments in discretionary funds is a useful thing to do, but it falls far short of the level of coordination required to build communities with a balance of jobs, housing and amenities and a transportation system scaled to match. For that, we need to reinvent the entire system of state and local government. And Tim Kaine doesn’t have enough time left in office to do that, even if he wanted to.