’99ers: open space is political gold

Columnist : Albert Paschall

 In 1848 a work crew building a sawmill outside of Sacramento found a few specks of yellow dust and one of the largest migrations in human history began.  Within 3 years California’s ‘49-ers, the gold diggers, had overrun the state and in a decade America’s largest state at the time was developed.

      150 years later southeastern and central Pennsylvania has become the hotbed of political gold digging.  The land rush of ’99 is on.  In the southeast there’s political gold to be mined from any open land that a government can buy, stall development on or condemn.  Pennsylvania’s ‘99-ers are politicians of any stripe that are riding the wave of open space preservation in the southeast and south central parts of the state.  No wonder.  Open space won big in last week’s election with four municipalities in Chester and Bucks Counties passing public referendums to raise local taxes for their governments to buy unused land.  In Philadelphia’s 4 suburban counties and in Lancaster and York Counties any candidates for commissioner that didn’t back open space preservation had better start looking for a real job.  Too bad Montgomery County Commissioner Rick Buckman wasn’t running for re-election.  His election eve challenge to the county to match his personal offer of $800,000 to buy a popular local ski mountain to protect it from development would have elected him for life.

     That message is hard charging west from Philadelphia’s suburbs straight into the capitol where six pieces of land use legislation are making their way through the state’s general assembly.  Five of the six are minor technical amendments to the Commonwealth’s Municipal Planning Code but Senate Bill 300 puts private property rights on a slippery slope.  While it may make great headlines, in terms of land preservation it just won’t pan out.

      Senate Bill 300 is sponsored by the poster boy of the open space movement Senator Jim Gerlach of Chester County.  If enacted it would transfer to a new bureaucracy called the Governor’s Center for Local Government Services regulatory power of zoning in our municipalities.  Proponents deny this.  But if the bill becomes law any municipality that didn’t cooperate with the bill’s provisions could get cut out of state highway, infrastructure and even open space funding.  Its provisions that would allow a local government to impose a five year moratorium on development ripen the potential for potent political mischief in a system that is constantly alleged to be overloaded with political paybacks now.

     But in Gerlach’s semi-rural Chester County district it would win in a landslide on a public referendum.  Anchored by Route 202’s high tech corridor the region has seen an onrush of good paying jobs that has brought a migration of scientists and engineers from all over the world.  From their relatively new Chester County mini-mansions they are dangerously close to sending the message that says we have ours and that’s enough.

     There isn’t any doubt that we should strengthen local control over land use.  Our municipalities should have more time to review development plans.  The threat of lawsuits by developers that try to force changes in qualified comprehensive plans must be minimized.  The ability to transfer development rights through joint municipal authorities to preserve open space and preserve jobs should be instruments of Pennsylvania’s local zoning powers.  There isn’t any reason, except lack of political will, that we can’t make these changes to the state code now.

     But the intent is to shift zoning power to Harrisburg and the idea of allowing de facto condemnation of private property through politically motivated moratoriums is fool’s gold.  It would send the message that Governor Ridge is so fond of quoting about his predecessor: “Pennsylvania is closed for business.”

      Very few of the hundreds of thousands of ‘49-ers that invaded California ever found any gold.  On fool’s errands many were conned out of their life’s savings and the few who did profit from prospecting managed to mine the veins dry in just about 12 years.  The land rush of ’99 is on in the southeastern part of the state and in the Senate and the House the Pennsylvania ‘99-ers are leading the charge.  The hope is that some day in the rush for political gold disguised as sound land use that they won’t mine dry our prospects for continued prosperity.