Grass roots are greener in Pennsylvania

Columnist : Albert Paschall

Even if the environmental advocates at Citizens for Pennsylvania’s Future don’t like it open space and farmland preservationists have won a big one in Pennsylvania.  Last week Governor Ridge signed his $645.9 million Growing Greener bill.  With matching county and municipal funds Pennsylvania governments will have more than $1.3 billion to buy land and development rights to slow growth largely in suburban townships that surround Philadelphia and in Lancaster and York Counties.

     The good news of Growing Greener may not be the bill itself.  If the general assembly continues to fund its five-year plan we should easily be able to measure the results.  The fear of it is that the academicians of land use and planning will gobble up the funding to create excessive theoretical tomes that gather dust on library shelves.  But whatever one’s perspective is, the beauty of Growing Greener is the process of its ultimate passage since earlier this year it was given about as much chance of success as the Philadelphia Eagle’s have of getting into the Super Bowl.

     So what turned 49 of Pennsylvania’s 50 Senators and 85% of the State House into friends of the earth?  Was it the Governor’s determination to add environmental credentials to a resume he hopes will be nationally recognized?  Was it as simple as the Christmas spirit of generosity to the folks back home?  Or just a rush to get out of Harrisburg and wrap up the year?

     None of the above.  It was pure fear that moved the legislation.  The drive to stake the claim to farmland was driven not only by the Governor’s determination but by the only two words that can halt Harrisburg’s steadfast march to beat and follow its own drum at the same time: public referendum.

     In November’s election 14 Pennsylvania and Southern New Jersey townships approved by solid majorities public referenda to raise their own taxes to buy open space and arrest development.  The four suburban Counties around Philadelphia have budgeted huge sums for open space acquisition.  Chester County’s $50 million dollar fund has been renewed and Montgomery County’s outgoing commissioners received virtually no public resistance to a tax increase to continue funding a $100 million farmland preservation program.   At least 30 municipal governments in those counties have formed open space, preservation or historic review committees to expand policies for more control of zoning and land use matters.  Open Space referendums are heading for municipal ballots in the Fall.  If Harrisburg had failed to fund Growing Greener, despite opposition from some of the state’s largest business organizations and unions, Harrisburg would have had open space or their heads handed to them next November.  With a razor slim majority in the House, Republicans from all over the state were willing to hug trees to keep the dominant Republican suburban voters in the southeast happy.

     Public referendum, its roots in the purest form of American government, the town meeting, terrifies the political class in this nation.  If referendum were to become the process rather than the derivative of the process than the power of the eternally elected would diminish virtually overnight.

     Growing Greener’s debate is over.  Whether one likes it or not it is now state policy and its backed by enough money to make it work.  Five years and $645.9 million from now we will know if it did preserve open space or just preserve consultants’ earnings.  But the beauty of the process of Growing Greener may be its ultimate legacy.  The people’s agenda in the southeast and south-central areas of the state moved this legislation.  Its passage means the grassroots are greener in Pennsylvania and the hope is that someday it may grow into a movement for more public participation and referendums in the state.