“Pave paradise and put up a parking lot” were 1970 Joni Mitchell lyrics decrying the build outs that were creating communities in Southern California and her tune looks like its heading back to the top of the charts this year in Pennsylvania.
The law of the land in the Commonwealth is that local governments are empowered to manage land use. Zoning boards, planning commissions, boro councils and township supervisors, people who live in the community largely control their own landscape. Historically this authority dates back to William Penn’s original land grants. Penn, an amateur, yet visionary land planner, carefully laid out the city between two rivers. Three centuries later Philadelphia is still recognized as a benchmark master plan for a cityscape.
Pennsylvania’s Municipal Planning Code governs how our municipal authorities manage zoning, the same way William Penn did. It clearly lays out the rules of the road. The MPC defines how zones are created for different types of uses. There are distinctions in business districts for retailing, office, institutional and industrial space. Communities can set limits on different types of housing considering traffic, green space and infrastructure capacity in approving new development. It protects citizens from institutional discrimination as well as their private property rights. It works because it has boundaries yet puts the power in the hands of the elected where they live.
Yet the state of Pennsylvania, William Penn’s creation, is attacking his legacy backed by the full faith and credit of the government of the United States. Pennsylvania’s 21st Century Environmental Commission has targeted some vague notion of sprawl as the number one environmental problem in the state. Governor Ridge in turn has added $15.6 million in the new budget to persuade smaller communities to surrender their control to multi-municipal authorities or the County government. Vice President Gore is driving the two billion-dollar Federal bulldozer designed to bury local governments in clusters of highly technical, unenforceable, Federal land use laws that will effectively end local control of the destinies of our communities.
The hypocrisy here is that governments today are proportionate to their cost. The more they cost the taxpayers the less response you get. Ironically that’s precisely what the state and federal fanatics are using as their platform argument in this battle: that small governments are too inefficient and political to manage community growth. If that is true then its incumbent on the argument’s advocates to find the agency in Harrisburg or Washington, any agency with the dollar for dollar efficiency of a township or boro in the state. If land use is politicized at the local level what pristine presence from the state capital or the magnet of money in the capital beltway will come to save us from ourselves and who will get what in their backyard in the process?
In all of this the suspicion lingers that the hidden agenda of the big government onslaught lies not in our protection but in their politics. That the politicians recognize that the anti-sprawl clich‚s are pushing buttons in the armies of planners, consultants, builders and inevitably lawyers that are the process of development. And that process is primed with hundreds of billions of political dollars to be had all across the United States in the name of protecting the next generation’s environment.
In the meantime with two billion Federal dollars and nearly $16 million in State money coming to tell you that everything that your local community is doing in land use, planning and zoning is wrong, municipal control may be headed for permanent condemnation. The big governments will take over managing what’s in our back yards with all the compassion that they routinely muster. If we sit back and surrender community control of land use to the onslaught of State and Federal academics, some day we’ll sing the other line from Mitchell’s tune: “you don’t know what you’ve got ’til its gone.”