Thursday, April 23, 2009

Niagara County as leader?

Niagara Tomorrow


While Erie County debates a countywide planning board, the shrinking county to the north has begun to think smart

Thursday is decision day in Upstate New York’s most populous county. After 40 years of population decline and population dispersal across an ever-broader landscape, the Erie County Legislature is scheduled to vote on whether to create a county-wide planning board.

The county executive has already announced his plan to veto the legislation. His stated rationale includes an assertion that major real-estate developers oppose such a body. If the opinions of major real-estate developers were all that mattered in setting priorities, I suppose that the county executive would be on solid ground. But when the county-wide planning board was endorsed by several of the major suburban commercial developers, notably Ciminelli Development, that rationale started looking like a beard for some other interest.

The vote will have been held by the time you read this. (See AV Daily for updates.)

Meanwhile, over the border in Niagara County, where the population has been declining even more rapidly than in Erie County over the past four decades, something astounding is underway.

It’s called a county-wide planning process—and so far, even though it’s only in draft form, the central thrust of the project is the profoundly simple and logical point that a declining population should not sprawl over more land, because doing so would stick future generations of taxpayers with maintenance bills they won’t be able to afford.

In other words, if there are not enough people to pay for it, don’t build it.

Northern light?

The Niagara County manager, Greg Lewis, somehow managed to get buy-in from the Niagara County Legislature to do a 20-year plan—including a land-use plan—for his shrinking, famous, alternately toxic and pristine county.

The process is underway. So far, news is dribbling out from a series of community meetings: Subjects that are now taboo in most of New York State are on the table in Niagara County.

The most surprising aspect of the “Niagara Communities Comprehensive Plan 2030” is in its title. Somebody is asking Niagara think 20 years ahead. (See the plan at http://www.niagaracounty.com/ComprehensivePlan.asp.)

Twenty years should not be a hard-to-understand notion, but around here, especially because of politicians in suburban towns, it’s just not the done thing. The turbines that have been generating power at the Niagara Power Project have lasted more than 40 years. The life-span of most public works projects—even if you just measure lifespan by the time it takes to pay off the bonds floated to finance a road, a bridge, or a culvert—is at least 30 years. Sewers that were dug in the City of Buffalo more than 100 years ago are still functioning. In other words, infrastructure lasts and lasts, especially when it’s maintained.

But this central point seems to be lost on those who oppose regional planning.

Last week when Artvoice published Dr. Wende Mix’s maps of vacant and abandoned real property in Buffalo—fully 17,000-plus parcels comprising over 1,500 acres—the untold story was of the infrastructure that sits under it all. Taxpayers in Buffalo are still paying to maintain hundreds of miles of streets, sewers, and water lines. Ratepayers are supporting the maintenance of telecommunications, natural gas, private electricity lines, and lighting fixtures. The stuff lasts and lasts, if it’s maintained. When the people who pay the taxes and fees and rates depart, however, because they’ve been enticed to the next town over to pay the tolls there, the old stuff still endures. It has to be maintained because it connects to everything that has been built outward; Buffalo cannot cease to maintain William Street or South Park just because residents and businesses have moved out to Cheektowaga or Hamburg.

That’s why the Niagara County planning process is so radical, and so new, and so sane. It’s making the point that a planning process in Erie County needs to make: Simply, don’t build what you can’t maintain.

Dreams, fantasies, nightmares

In a recent interview (soon to be aired on Artvoice TV), former Rochester Mayor William Johnson, Jr., spoke candidly about the challenges that elected officials face when developers come around.

“You want to help them build something,” he said, “and sometimes it doesn’t seem to even matter what it is, because building something looks like progress even when it isn’t.”

Fantasies of transformative projects turn into tax-abatement nightmares.

Cornell University economist Rolf Pendall’s recent studies, notably his work on the Upstate phenomenon of sprawl without growth, indicated that the Rochester area had an even worse record than the Buffalo-Niagara metro region when it comes to developers gobbling up land for ever-more houses and shopping centers for ever-fewer people.

The Niagara County planning process is occurring at a time when there is a growing awareness of the expense of sticking with the current way of doing things. But it’s also occurring at a time when the towns of Wheatfield and Pendleton—which are directly across Tonawanda Creek from Amherst and Clarence—are experiencing an influx of new residents.

Niagara County, like every other county in Upstate New York, has no explicit, enumerated legal power to stop sprawl. The power of Home Rule is vested in municipalities. If your town supervisor is in the vest pocket of the housing-development industry, and the housing-development industry wants to continue to build its inventory on new farmland that willing farmers have sold for that purpose, there’s nothing much that that county is going to be able to do to stop it.

The Niagara County planning process is doing a good job of getting the word out that there are other economic interests than those of real-estate developers. But in the end, unless we have a governor who wants to protect farmland, secure open spaces, and prevent a dwindling number of taxpayers from shouldering an ever-larger bill for needlessly large infrastructure, then even a new county planning board or an enlightened county manager will be left fighting with town politicians who want to go their own way.

Sadly, for half a century now, the townies have been winning.

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