Thursday, April 9, 2009

Robinson Crusoe

Make a Plan

More sprawl, abandonment, and shrinkage—or sanity for 2020? In favor of a county-wide planning board.

Fifty-eight out of 62 counties in New York State have county-wide planning boards. Erie County does not. The last time Erie County had such a body was in the 1990s, when it partnered with Niagara County on a bi-county planning board. But there were problems. The body had been in place since the 1970s. It had had the same executive director for 16 years. But because of irritation over its cost, irritation over the unequal sharing of expenses between Niagara and Erie Counties, and some staff-related problems, the Gorski administration ended it.

A planning board did not stop sprawl or mis-allocation of precious infrastructure assets or white flight after the school desegregation decisions of the 1970s. The Erie-Niagara planning body did not prevent the Catholic Church from abandoning dozens of historic structures in the urban core.

A regional planning board is no guarantee of good regional planning. But these days, especially because there’s a new president whose policy team explicitly endorses coordinated planning within metro areas, there’s no good reason for Erie County to go without a planning board any longer—especially after bipartisan work under Joel Giambra and a Democratic legislature completed the Erie-Niagara Framework for Regional Growth and laid the basis for a new regional planning effort.

The good news is that thanks to Maria Whyte, the Erie County Legislature is about to introduce new legislation to create a county-wide planning board. The bill enjoys majority support in the Erie County legislature (it is a one-county bill, as it needs to be) and it is backed by a broad coalition of citizen groups, planning experts, and even by a major suburban real estate developer. The other good news is that because this is really nothing radical at all, we should all view it as a long-overdue restoration of an old tool, not as a newfangled, untried gadget.

Did I mention that fully 58 of New York’s 62 counties already have county-wide planning boards?

The bad news is that the county executive says he’ll veto the bill. Even worse, some suburban legislators from sprawl-loving townships apparently won’t commit to overriding his veto.

Thank God for Lake Erie

I guess it comes down to whether one believes that our economic and demographic winter is here forever, or that spring might eventually come.

If you believe that racism is forever, that concentrated poverty inside the 40.5 square miles of Buffalo is a permanent and intractable fact, and that the center-less, self-isolating, non-neighborhood culture of the suburb requires infinite replication across the land, then you will vote against the planning board legislation. A “no” on this legislation will mean that as the region’s population continues to shrink, the region’s taxpayers will pay heavier and heavier local taxes to support more and more subdivision developments in towns that will “grow” only by poaching residents from already-developed towns that are closer to where black people live.

If, on the other hand, you like village centers like East Aurora, Orchard Park, Williamsville, Elmwood, Hertel, South Buffalo, Kenmore, Jefferson-William, Hamlin Park, Angola, Springville, and Allentown for their walkable spaces, their sense of local identity, their nearby amenities, and their cohesiveness, then you should call your legislator and ask him or her to support this thing. Village centers—whether they are inside the municipal boundaries of townships or whether they are neighborhoods in a city— are the nodes of life that studies show most of us actually crave, and that make public safety, public health, neighborhood retail stores, and happiness for seniors and school kids easier to maintain. A big-picture planning agency with professional staff and a view of the county as a whole can actually make public services at the local level, no matter what the name of the municipality, more efficient, because professional staff can help make sure that public resources get spent in ways that help us get what works.

We’ve been missing that. If it hadn’t been for Lake Erie to our west, our west would look like what’s east, north, and south of Buffalo—namely, suburban strip plazas that have crashed, village centers that need attention, and cul-de-sacs where anybody without a car is Robinson Crusoe without a goat.

Without a way to plan, we’ll get more of what we’ve had for 40 years around here—sprawl, depopulation, ever-greater expenditures for suburban roads, more and more subdivisions, and all for the same number of people. There will be less and less value for existing houses, and for the poorer areas of the region, more and more Little Dutch Boy finger-in-the-dike programs to shore up housing values that can’t be maintained because of the simple law of supply and demand.

But going without a planning body could make things even worse than that.

It takes perspective

Let us lift up our noses for just a moment, out of the quagmire of today’s urgent concerns, and breathe the free air of our bright future, which begins, as it began two centuries ago, with water.

We have it. Atlanta doesn’t. California is running out of it. Texas and most of the Southwest are seriously overpopulated (as is the southern Piedmont area of the Southeast) for those areas’ water resources. The long-term climate models scream out the inevitability that pretty damned soon, the Great Lakes basin will once again become a destination for settlement, development, and enterprise.

Don’t doubt it. The re-migration will begin sometime in the next two decades. And when it does, we should have rationalized the infrastructure in our urbanized region. Rationalizing it means this: We should have planned for a system of roads, sewers, water lines, and utilities that a smaller tax base can sustain, which means that we have to curb the zeal of some town governments to keep “growing” by committing tomorrow’s smaller group of taxpayers to an ever-larger bill for infrastructure that we demonstrably do not need and cannot afford.

It doesn’t take much sky-gazing to imagine that day when the national government could look at the Great Lakes region and see what the Brookings Institution’s Great Lakes Economic Initiative has seen over the past few years—namely, a region with a whole lot of colleges, museums, urban centers with sturdy housing stock (much of which is, to be sure, in need of weatherizing and greening), surrounded by arable land that gets something that the Southeast, the Southwest, California and the Central Plains don’t get: rain.

We already have the Greater Buffalo Niagara Regional Transportation Council. We already have the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority. We now have the Obama administration, whose advisors and now whose staff also embrace regional governance and coordinated planning among the “stovepipe” agencies that do transportation, housing, and economic development.

The lack of a planning body in Erie County is incongruous, even if enacting one will not prove a panacea for yesterday’s bad decision-making.

But as we face up to how much smaller our population is going to be over the next decade—the Wharton School study says we should expect at least five percent shrinkage in Erie and Niagara Counties, and possibly as much as seven percent—it’s pretty obvious that towns aren’t going to be able to go it alone without stealing population from other towns.

I wish Whyte’s legislation would truly empower Erie County to act like counties do in Virginia, or like regions do in Ontario, where the bigger government exercises supreme real power over local land-use decisions. The proposed legislation in Erie County is more like a coordinating council than the overlord I would impose were I the land-use king. But I suppose that making room for big towns, small towns, cities, professional planners, and all the other perspectives that Whyte’s proposed board would invite in is a less scary proposition than locating supreme power in the hands of any executive.

Sadly, failure to enact the proposed legislation would do just that.

Bruce Fisher is visiting professor of economics and finance at Buffalo State College, where he directs the Center for Economic and Policy Studies.

Reader Comments

10 Apr 2009, 00:48
You had my attention until the "Robinson Crusoe without a goat" phrase was in there. A GOAT? I suppose your regional planning board wants to release goats all over the county.

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