Friday, February 27, 2009

Take Action -- Smart Growth Hearing

Friends, your hard work and dedicated advocacy is making its mark!

On Monday, March 2nd, at 11 AM in Room 2B of the Legislative Office Building, the Planning and Development Committee will hear testimony on bills based on the recommendations of the Smart Growth Working Group and the Governor’s smart growth budget proposals.

Below is a short summary of the bills the committee will consider.  The public hearing process is a beginning step, but a crucial one to successfully changing where and how we develop.

 Please take time to review the bills, then take action.

  • Come tell the committee why these bills are important to you. Testimony should be three minutes long. You can sign up to testify at 10:00. The committee will also accept written testimony. It requests 40 copies of written testimony be delivered to staff by 9:30. If you send your testimony to me by Sunday morning, I’ll compile it and submit it for you.
  • Short of all that, please take time to call or email members of the Planning and Development Committee. Find the list on line at: .
  • Thank them for raising the smart growth bill and scheduling this hearing. Don’t forget to encourage their championship for smart growth going forward!

6463 An Act Concerning Membership on Regional Planning Agencies = Smart Growth Working Group Recommendation

Would require the chief elected official of a city or town be a member of the regional planning agency.

Why does this matter? There is wide support for increasing services delivered and authority granted (including a share of the sales tax, see 6585 below) to regional entities. If regional agencies are to take on wider government responsibilities, they must be directly accountable to voters. Including mayors and first selectmen in the membership would meet that good governance goal.  

6464 An Act Concerning Coordinated Preservation and Development = Smart Growth Working Group Recommendation

Would require the Face of Connecticut Steering Committee screen grant applications for open space and watershed land acquisition, purchase of development rights for farmland, grants for historic preservation, and funds for brownfield remediation for compliance with smart growth principles and notify if the applications were found inconsistent. Inconsistent applications would be denied.

Why does this matter? State resources are limited. We can’t afford investments that aren’t smart and sustainable.   

6465 An Act Concerning Smart Growth and Transportation Planning = Smart Growth Working Group Recommendation

Would require the Transportation Strategy Board to maintain a capital plan for transportation investment that incorporates smart growth principles and to screen transportation projects using a smart growth filter.

Why does this matter? To date, the transportation project list is compiled at the regional level and fails to reflect an overarching transportation vision for the state. State resources are limited. We can’t afford investments that aren’t smart and sustainable. In addition, a capital plan will increase transparency about what is in the transportation project queue, project timelines and specific sources of project funding. 

6466 An Act Concerning Projects of Regional Significance = Smart Growth Working Group Recommendation

This bill defines regional planning organizations. It defines projects of regional significance. And it would enable regional planning organizations to establish a process for combined state, regional and local agencies to conduct pre-application reviews of projects of regional significance.

Why does this matter? Large-scale smart growth projects can involve approvals from myriad offices and agencies, from the local historic commission, to the local zoning commission, to the Department of Environmental Protection, to the State Traffic Commission, to the Connecticut Development Authority. A pre-application review at the regional scale would let developers know what timelines and submission requirements to expect and would let agencies know what they have on deck so applications can be filed more completely, problems identified early on in the process, and approvals expedited.

6467 An Act Concerning Smart Growth and Plans of Conservation and Development = Smart Growth Working Group Recommendation

Defines smart growth as economic, social and environmental development that (1)uses land and resources to enhance the long-term quality of life for current and future generation in the state and promotes (A)integrated planning that coordinates tax, transportation, housing, environmental and economic development policies at the state and local level, (B) the reduction of reliance on the property tax by municipalities by creating efficiencies and coordination of services on the regional level while reducing interlocal competition for grand list growth, (C) the redevelopment of existing infrastructure and resources, including brownfields and historic places, instead of new construction in undeveloped places, (D) transportation choices that provide alternatives to automobiles, including rail, bikeways and walking, while reducing energy consumption, (E) affordable and available housing for mixed income households in close proximity to transportation and employment centers, (F) concentrated, mixed use development around transportation nodes and civic and cultural centers, and (G) the conservation and protection of natural resources by preserving open space, farmland and historic properties and furthering energy efficiency, and (2) is accomplished by a collaborative approach to planning, decision-making and evaluation between and among all levels of government to promote economic competitiveness in the state while preserving natural resources.  

The bill would declare it the policy of the state to address the high financial, social and environmental cost of sprawl through effective smart growth.  It would require the State’s economic development strategy, and conservation and development policies plan, as well as regional and local plans incorporate smart growth.   Finally, this legislation would require the Office of Policy and Management to develop model zoning regulations to be used by zoning commissions that provide for smart growth.

Why does this matter? We plan for what’s important. If passed, in Connecticut we would be planning a smart sustainable future! And we’d provide an important tool to towns to implement that plan.

6585 An Act Concerning Regionalism = Smart Growth Working Group Recommendation

Would give municipalities engaged in regional agreements meeting criteria for regional taxation, economic development, and land use a share of the sales tax.  Would create a grant program for regional planning organizations to facilitate regional agreements.

Why does this matter? Coordinates land use and economic development policy and reduces town’s reliance on the regressive property tax.

6588 An Act Concerning Training For Local Land Use Commissioners = Smart Growth Working Group Recommendation

Would put the Center for Land Use Education and Research at the University of Connecticut in charge of developing land use courses and certification programs for zoning, inland wetland, conservation, planning, and water pollution control commissions.

 6589 An Act Concerning Land Use Appeals  = Smart Growth Working Group Recommendation

Would establish a land use court in each judicial district.

371 An Act Concerning Intermunicipal Cooperation = Smart Growth Working Group Recommendation

Would authorize regional planning organizations to coordinate cooperative agreements among towns

384 An Act Concerning Regionalism  = Smart Growth Working Group Recommendation

Seeks to promote and encourage regionalism among municipalities for the purpose of lowering costs, promoting smart growth, and creating efficiencies for providing certain services.

5544 An Act Concerning Regional Economic Development = Smart Growth Working Group Recommendation

Would enable cooperative agreements between any two or more municipalities.

6387 An Act Concerning the Small Town Economic Assistance Program = Governor’s proposal

Would allow towns to apply jointly for Small Town Economic Assistance Grants.

6388 An Act Providing Mandate relief to Municipalities = Governor’s proposal

Would require a two-thirds General Assembly vote for new requirements on cities and towns if state funding is not provided for the requirements.

6389 An Act Concerning Regionalization = Governor’s proposal  

Would create a new regional grant program that would incent multi-town service sharing and allow for the purchase of capital equipment to provide regional services. 

On Broadway

Comparing anything to New York City is admittedly a bit unfair, but this piece of news is actually pretty stunning: Mayor Bloomberg has unveiled a plan to turn Broadway into a great pedestrian walkway in midtown Manhattan.

I know, New York City has a great public transit system, is extremely dense and is basically the perfect place to do this kind of development, as no one on his right mind drives around the city anyway. Still, it is a bold, fresh idea; it would be nice to have this kind of daring, out of the box thinking in Connecticut sometimes.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Some notes on zoning

What kind of development we have in a given plot of land is in a sense the core of smart growth. The whole idea behind smart growth is improving land use; for all the bells and whistles of transportation, energy use, historical conservation, regional coordination and tax structure, the end product we look for is having cities and towns that are distributed rationally.

This means that besides the big picture, in the tax structure, transportation and regional politics, where the rubber meets the road is actually when towns decide zoning. There is no much point of having a wonderful commuter rail service that serves many towns and cities if zoning regulations don´t allow any kind of meaningful density besides the stations. We can have a solid, rational property tax system, but it won´t go anywhere if towns only allow two acre plots no matter what.

When zoning, however, towns and cities face an odd dilemma. They want to set the rules in a way that they get the kind of development that makes sense for the town and its voters. At the same time, they don´t want to be to strong handed, behaving like the proverbial central planner that pretends to know best. The same way that developers can overbuild or be tempted to use very low densities to maximize their profits, a city council can be tempted to engage in extravagant urban renewal or oversized big box development that do more harm than good.

Planners can and should try to strike a balance between these two potential pitfalls, be it by self restraint, be it by clever regulation. There are many different ways to do that; a fairly simple and elegant one is form based zoning.

The framework of a form based code is that the city plan only establishes how the town should look like, but not how each building is used. A city plan would say that a certain plot needs to have for instance a three store building with nice windows occupying 90% of the space, but will not say if it should be an office building, department store, a condo or a urban mansion. The city essentially only decides the feel and density, not the distribution; the marketplace will probably do a better job deciding what use makes the most sense.

Obviously, the code can be as detailed as the city ones, but it doesn´t need to cover everything. On historical districts we will have strong restrictions, while in less sensitive areas we won´t waste time regulating the use of neons on storefronts. In Connecticut there are some towns that use this kind of code sporadically; New Haven has a system similar to form based coding for the Whitney Avenue corridor. Most towns and cities in the state, however, retain the inflexible and outdated limits on land use that paired with the current fiscal incentives usually make little sense.

Smart Growth Public Hearing

The Planning and Development Committee will hold a public hearing on the smart growth bills.
The hearing will be Monday, March 2nd at 11:00 AM in Room 2B of the LOB. Please review the bills below and plan to testify! Bills 1 to 9 are the package recommended by the Smart Growth Working Group.


Sunday, February 22, 2009

Old MIlls in Flood Zones

Old mills are scattered throughout Connecticut's low lying places. These old industrial and manufacturing buildings typically have sought after architectural features. They have high ceilings, wooden floors, ornate brick exteriors, and big windows. They’re in hot places too. They were the hubs around which villages and cities grew and they’re central sites still. From them, residents and workers can walk to schools, shops, libraries and restaurants. Bringing back our older industrial sites is critical to compact, walkable, smart development in the state.

Recapturing these buildings for lofts, galleries, and offices isn’t cheap even when the economy is rolling. And with seized-up capital markets, it’s even more difficult now. They can be dirty sites with contaminated soils, lead, asbestos, etc. They’re often historic and subject to high restoration standards. They may be speculative -- lynch pin developments for revitalizing down-on-their-luck parts of town. Not surprisingly, developers tend to seek state assistance in the form of tax credits, grants, or loans to bring them back. In Connecticut, state assistance to development projects must meet environmental standards. One such standard prohibits state involvement in projects within the the flood plain.

Our old mills were built to capitalize on ready access to hydroelectric power. They’re on or very near rivers. They are frequently within the flood plain. Developers have been advocating increasingly strenuously for that requirement to be changed. Some want the prohibition eliminated altogether. Some want it eliminated for residential development. Some want the protected zone reduced from the 500-year flood plain to the 100-year flood plain. Developers know these properties hold strong redevelopment potential but let's face it, their time horizon for interest in a property is necessarily shorter than that of the state. Developers secure a property, give it a new future, turn it over to a new owner, and move on. This is their role, and it's a good one. The state's interest in the properties are longer, they last through loan repayments and through the lives of current and future residents of the buildings and thier downstream neighbors.

Climate change science has taught us Connecticut’s weather is morphing. Sea levels are rising. Storms patterns are intensifying. Our miles of impervious surface mean that when snow melts or when it rains, less water seeps into the soil, instead it charges for our rivers and streams and increases the likelihood and severity of floods. These patterns are real and irrefutable and we have to mitigate for them.

In addition, in the case of mixed-income developments, affordable units are often built on the lower stories while the scenic views found in upper stories contribute to the value of prime units. This means that subsidized units and their low-income residents are more likely to be in flood-prone levels.

So, how do we meet our smart growth goals to reuse existing buildings and re-enliven existing villages, developers' call for regulations that allow the buildings to be reused, and our need to invest state dollars in development that is sustainable, protect the long-term economic viability of these buildings, and ensure the security of new units, including affordable housing units?

This legislative session, a bill was introduced in the Commerce Committee that leads to a reasonable compromise. In short, the bill would exempt older industrial sites from the flood plain prohibition on the condition that the footprint of the renovated buildings do not exceed the footprint of existing buildings and any residential units are above the 500-year flood plain.

Does this provide the right balance? Share your comments.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Governor Targets Responsible Growth in New Plan to Close the 2009 Budget

Governor M. Jodi Rell released her 4th plan to balance the 2009 budget yesterday. The proposal cuts $1.1 billion to close the projected hole for the year ending in June. Though the actual magnatude of the deficit is up-in-the-air, (The Office of Policy and Management projects a $922 million gap; the State Comptroller estimates $1.1 billion, and the legislature's Office of Fiscal Analysis estimates $1.3 billion.) the Governor’s intent to cut funding to programs that help Connecticut reach responsible growth goals is clear.

In addition to using federal stimulus dollars, bottle deposit revenue, and the rainy day fund, the plan includes significant cuts to human service, an early retirement plan for state employees, and nearly $55 million in cuts to transit, preservation and economic development.

Bringing our state income tax closer to parity with those of neighboring states and doing it retroactive to January 1, 2008 would generate between $400,000,000 & $800,000,000. Isn’t that a better choice for our economic recovery than making the following cuts?
  • Small Business Incubator 600,000;
  • Bus Operations 294,000;
  • Clean Diesel Buses 2,000,000;
  • Regional Performance Incentive Grant Program 100,000;
  • Bridge Repair Loans to Cities and Towns 28,000,000;
  • Farmland Preservation, Affordable Housing, Historic Preservation, and Open Space Preservation (Community Investment Act) 11,000,000;
  • Bridge Repair Grants to Cities and Towns 7,000,000;
  • Department of Environmental Protection Personal Services 775,000;
  • Special Transportation Fund 700,000;
  • Transportation Strategy Board Projects 4,000,000;
  • Transit Equipment 233,542;
  • Bus Capital Projects $237,500.

Democratic leaders in the General Assembly say they’ll adopt measures to balance the budget on Wednesday. Take time to give them a call.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

On housing and foreclosures

President Obama (I still can't get used to write that) presented today his plan to turn the tide in the massive wave of foreclosures that has greatly contributed to the current economic crisis. I won't get much into the details of the plan, as the Center for American Progress has a better analysis (it is a meaty plan, unlike Geithner's bank bailout), but I think it deserves some additional general comments. Mainly, do we want the government to work to promote home ownership?

The Federal government (and to a lesser extend, state and local governments) spends a great deal of resources via both guarantees and tax breaks to promote home ownership. Be it through income tax deductions, be it by creating strange financial creatures like Freddy Mac and Fannie Mae, the path to homeownership is paved with government subsidies. This creates some odd effects in the housing market, mainly by making the purchasing a house much cheaper and easier to finance, and thus making it a much more desirable investment.

As we have seen in the past few months, purchasing a house could be a pretty lousy investment. It does not always retain value, it is pretty hard to sell when the economy goes South, and it is the perfect example for many of putting all your investment eggs in one basket, being as it is a pretty massive purchase. In addition, home ownership reduces the flexibility of the economy, as people become much more reluctant to move when the economy tanks in a region.

Even with these drawbacks, the Federal government has promoted since the 50s policies that push people towards this lousy investment, giving them strong incentives to buy more of it (bigger lots, bigger houses) to maximize the tax breaks. It promotes sprawl by both making housing cheap and big houses more desirable.

Some people have critizised the Obama plan because it will make banks more reluctant to lend money for mortgages in the future. I am with Matt Yglesias that this is not actually a bug, but a feature of the plan. We need to think less on making homeownership cheap, and focus more on making housing (including renting) affordable.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The efficiency of cities

Edward Glaeser argues in this excellent article in City Journal that one of the best ways (if not the best) to fight global warming is to build denser, more compact, more transit friendly cities.

Of course, he doesn´t stop just there. A city like San Francisco is more efficient like New York, for instance, mainly because heating costs are lower but also because they get their electricity from more efficient energy sources. Houston is blessed with a warm climate, but its inhabitants waste a lot of carbon by driving around and powering their air conditioning with dirty power generation.

The real key, however, is not the efficiency of the metro area as a whole, but how much more efficient some city cores are compared to the suburbs. New York City is, in this case, the poster child of earth-friendliness.

Connecticut has very ambitious greenhouse gas emision targets on the books. It will be a good idea to take these ideas seriously when devising policy, as some of the bills bellow do.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Bills we're watching

Below is a list of bills 1000 Friends of Connecticut is monitoring this session. To find out more about where we stand and why, contact me.

Please go to for the latest on all the bills before the General Assembly.

371 -- An Act Concerning Intermunicipal Cooperation -- To increase regional cooperation and make government more efficient and less expensive;
384 -- An Act Concerning Regionalism -- To promote and encourage regionalism among municipalities for the purpose of lowering costs, promoting smart growth, and creating efficiencies for providing certain services;
888 -- An Act Concerning Regional Economic Development -- To promote regional economic development in the state by dividing the state into five regional economic development districts, providing for comprehensive economic development strategies for such districts and coordinating state and regional economic development planning;
5544 -- An Act Concerning Regional Economic Development Plans -- To reduce the property tax burden and encourage towns to become partners for revenue;
5802 -- An Act Concerning Brownfields -- To modify the general statutes regarding the transfer of contaminated property in order to expedite the redevelopment of brownfields;
5868 -- An Act Concerning Economic Development Teams -- To improve state-local partnership for economic development and help such projects to be approved as rapidly as possible;
6097 -- An Act Concerning Brownfield Development Projects -- To implement certain recommendations of the brownfields taskforce including, site assessments, liability, cost recovery, municipal relief and land reuse;
6308 -- An Act Concerning Smart Growth Municipal and Regional Provisions in Plans of Conservation and Development -- To require land use plans follow smart growth principles and require vertical consistency between plans;
6389 -- An Act Promoting Regionalism -- To create the Governor’s Regional Incentive Grants; 6463 -- An Act Concerning Membership on Regional Planning Agencies -- To require the chief elected official of municipalities that are members of regional planning agencies be members of the regional planning agency;
6375 -- An Act Concerning Review and Termination of Certain Boards and Commissions -- The Governor’s bill to eliminate state commissions and boards including, the Face of Connecticut Steering Committee, the Housing Court, the Blue Ribbon Commission on Housing and Economic Development, Food Policy Council, Economic Development Advisory Board, Board of Professional Engineers and Land Surveyors, the Board of Landscape Architects, Agricultural Lands Preservation Program, Advisory Commission in Intergovernmental Relations, Real Estate Commission, Public Transportation Commission, Council on Environmental Quality, State Properties Review Board, Coastal Management Program, Department of Economic and Community Development, Transportation Strategy Board, and more;
6464 -- An Act Concerning Coordinated Preservation and Development -- Defines smart growth and requires the Face of Connecticut Steering Committee to review applications for open space and watershed land grants, purchase of development rights for agricultural land, grants to restore historic structures ad brownfield remediation requests against smart growth criteria; 6465 -- An Act Concerning Smart Growth and Transportation Planning -- Defines smart growth and requires the Transportation Strategy Board to evaluate transportation projects against smart growth criteria;
6466 -- An Act Concerning Projects of Regional Significance -- Defines projects of regional significance and enables regional planning organizations to establish a voluntary process for preapplication preview which includes state, local and regional officials;
6467 -- An Act Concerning Smart Growth and Plans of Conservation and Development -- To define smart growth and require vertical integration of plans

Appropriations hearing on a batch of smart growth items.

It’s a big year for smart growth in the Connecticut General Assembly! There are quite a few bills before the General Assembly addressing policy and funding concerns.

This post invites you to weigh in on the budget side. Funding for programs that restore historic properties, clean up brownfields, finance transit oriented development, subsidize affordable housing, preserve farmland, and protect open space are all slated for significant cuts or elimination in the Governor’s Budget (Bill 6375 LCO # 3036). for the text.

Please let members of the Appropriations Committee know that investing in smart growth now has immediate and long-term benefits to Connecticut’s environment, economy and people. In the short-term smart growth investments will leverage federal stimulus dollars to create or maintain more jobs. Long-run benefits include a robust economy, lively attractive communities, locally-grown food, and cleaner air, water, and natural habitats.

The Appropriations Committee will have a public hearing on the Governor’s Budget tomorrow, February 17th, at 6:30 in the Legislative Office Building. There will be a lottery to determine speaker order. Testimony is limited to three minutes. The committee requests 35 copies of written testimony. Please let me know if you’d like 1000 Friends to help you sign up.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

How the recession could reshape the country

Richard Florida has a long, provocative article in this month's issue of The Atlantic on how the (very deep) recession will probably reshape the development patters of the country, and what cities can do to jump start their prosperity. Besides giving some really dismal information (average home price in Detroit: a bit of $18,000), it is remarkable how many of the changes relate to smart growth, and how Florida argues that denser, more integrated and flexible regions are what will drive a city forward.

Well worth a read, at least to have a bit of a bird's eye view of the issues at hand. If Florida is write, Connecticut might be in a fairly good position to thrive and prosper by thinking regionally not just within but also beyond its borders. Building infrastructure to connect the state effectively and efficiently both to Boston and New York City is urgent, and the plans should go beyond relying in piece meal upgrades of the existing rail links and institutional arrangements.

Friday, February 13, 2009

How will Connecticut leverage the Recovery and Reinvestment Act dollars?

Congress passed the final stimulus act today. The American Reinvestment and Recovery Act includes resources that can be wielded to advance smart growth goals here and across the nation. The act also includes major new transparency and accountability requirements, so we’ll be better able to track how Connecticut deploys its infusion of federal money. Nationally, the act provides the following:

  • $2.5B through HOME and Low Income Tax Credits for affordable housing gap financing;

  • $1B for Community Development Block Grant Funds (often used for streetscapes and affordable housing);
  • $27.5B for highway investments (We’ll have to work to include complete streets provisions to this funding.);
  • $8.4B for public transportation;
  • $1.5B for competitive grants to state and local governments for transportation investments;
  • $9.3B for rail transportation, including Amtrak, high speed and inter city rail;
  • $4B for public housing capital ;
  • $2B to redevelop abandoned and foreclosed homes;
  • $6B for environmental clean up of former weapon production and energy research sites;
  • $6B for clean and drinking water infrastructure improvements;
  • $1.2B to the Environmental Protection Agency for environmental cleanup, including Superfund.

Connecticut’s share of the following will help stave off the need for further property tax increases.

  • $53.6 B in state fiscal stabilization, including $39.5 B for local school districts, $5 B for education bonus grants, $8.8 B for public safety, education, modernization and renovation and repairs for public school facilities and institutions of higher education facilities;
  • $13 B for Title 1 to close the achievement gap;
  • $12.2 B for special education.

We need sufficient, targeted, state capital investments in brownfield remediation & reuse, transit, transit oriented development, and affordable housing to leverage Connecticut’s share of the federal recovery funds and bring our economy back!

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

We have stimulus

It looks like we have stimulus from the Federal government. At least, something that looks like it. Pending more details, some pointers to have in mind:
  1. States and cities are getting less that it was initially aproved by the House. Let´s hope that Rell´s budget estimates were not too full of wishfull windfall thinking.
  2. The incentives for the purchase of cars and housing are (mostly) gone. Both good news. Neither were too good as stimulus, and both were potentially terrible in regards of smart growth.
  3. Only the US Congress is able to have one plan costing $820 billion, another $840 billion, and reach a compromise that is bellow both figures, $789 billion.
  4. No details on how the transportation money will go. Fingers crossed for more rail.
Bonus Obama clip: "The days where we’re just building sprawl forever, those days are over." We have a smart growth president.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

On gas mileage

There has been a lot of talk in the past few months on how Detroit has failed Americans by not producing smooth running, gas sipping, energy efficient cars. High gas mileage cars are a wonderful way to reduce emissions and fight global warming, or so it is said.

Well, not really, and the key is actual car use. Let's say I have been driving a gigantic General Fnords Gigantic SUV for the past few years. My budget for transportation is relatively fixed; I have $300 for gas a month, and I won't drive much over that. This pays a certain amount of miles traveled, that I will restrict to trips I really need when gas prices spike, and will cover maybe a couple of long weekend drives if the prices fall.

Now, let's say that I get tired of having to think twice before driving my monster-sized SUV to go out to buy some milk, so I get rid of it and buy an efficient, comfortable sedan from Japan. My new car gets roughtly twice the milleage, so I can drive much, much more and stay within budget - which means that I can drive more for the same price. This will probably translate that I will feel better about driving to Vermont once a month to the outlet stores, driving 10 miles to do groceries to use coupons at a specific store, and not even consider talking the bus to go to work as my car is oh-so-good in mileage.

The end result of a fleet with twice the mileage could well be a fleet that drives almost twice as much, clogging the roads with the same hopeless enthusiasm as before while feeling green and clean about it.

What is the better option? Well, a less popular one - one that makes people budget thinking on how much they drive. A higher gas tax is actually the one reliable way to make people reduce miles traveled, not just enjoy driving a bit more. This doesn't mean that Connecticut should raise this tax by itself -it something that makes more sense on a Federal level- but it should be on the table.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Rell's Budget: Heidi's take

I quote Heidi Green's take on the proposed budget:

Governor M. Jodi Rell presented her proposed budget earlier this week. She said the budget makes for a leaner more efficient government that would position the state to soar when the economy recovers.

Connecticut’s future prosperity and competitiveness hinges on developing robust downtowns and urban centers; fostering desirable communities where millennials can start their careers, Gen X-ers can start their families, and baby boomers can transition to the challenges of aging within walking distance of shopping, recreation, education opportunities and easy access to transit. That behooves the state to play a significant role in reducing cities and towns’ reliance on the property tax to pay for government services; improve regional cooperation to realize efficiencies in government service delivery and coordinate land use & economic development at a sustainable scale; and invest strategically in assets that guarantee a positive long-run return to the state’s economy, environment and society – investments in transit, transit oriented development, brownfield revitalization, affordable housing, and priority property preservation.
Does the Governor’s proposed budget advance smart growth in the next biennium? Not so much.

The Governor proposes a one-year $40 million grant program that encourages towns to provide services like trash collection, road maintenance, animal control, etc. regionally.

At the same time, the budget:
• reduces bonding to cities and towns,
• eliminates planning grants to municipalities,
• reduces previous bond authorizations for planning by half,
• eliminates state-sponsored education for land use commissioners,
• eliminates funding for regional planning organizations,
• eliminates the regional incentive grant program,
• zeros the regional performance grant,
• cuts Payments in Lieu of Taxes for colleges and hospitals and PILOT for state-owned property in all of our major cities except Hartford.

For smart growth advocates, other worrisome items in the budget include a proposal to switch all Department of Environmental Protection special funds to the General Fund – this includes the emergency spill response program and underground storage tank cleanup. The budget narrative says this would open the funds to the transparency of the appropriations process. 1000 FRIENDS vociferously supports greater transparency and accountability in government but clearly there’s more going on here than openness.

DEP loses its dedicated funds and its lines in the Governor’s budget reflect a 7.44 percent cut in the biennium with $12 million lost in 09/10 only $7.1 million of which would be recovered in 10/11.

The Governor proposes big changes to the Department of Economic and Community Development. It will absorb the Office of Workforce Competitiveness and the Commission on Culture and Tourism. DECD is currently responsible for a number of growth and development programs. They include:
• brownfield remediation and redevelopment,
• affordable housing,
• Main Street development, and
• urban redevelopment.
• The Commission on Culture and Tourism is responsible for historic preservation – a key concern when redeveloping older neighborhoods.

DECD takes on significantly more responsibility with the Governor’s proposed budget, but it loses $10.3 million in 09/10 and another $4 million in 10/11. And the CCT loses all $33 million of its funds.

Transportation fares little better. The Transportation Strategy Board is eliminated and the Special Transportation Fund receives an anemic four percent infusion.

The Governor includes $1.9 billion in federal stimulus dollars in her budget. Given this week’s tussling in the U.S. Senate, this amount seems optimistic. The current deficit projected by the Office of Fiscal Analysis is close to $3 billion deeper than the Governor’s budget reflects. Obviously, the Connecticut General Assembly will have to consider both cuts and revenue enhancements in the coming weeks.

Smart growth advocates need to help them keep the endgame in sight as they do. If they chose well, we can grow smart and sustainably. We can weather the recession and come out stronger. If not, we’ll see further urban disinvestment, lose even more land, be stuck in our cars in traffic and no one will relocate their homes or businesses here because they won’t be able to afford our housing!

Friday, February 6, 2009

Wasting space

One of the most grating aspects on the public debate in some cities is their focus on parking. Many public hearings on new developments on city downtowns revolve around where people are going to park their cars above all else.

There is a reason some buildings are placed in downtown areas, close to transit hubs and within a walking distance of housing and other businesses: we don't want people to drive there. Some people, maybe, but the whole idea of placing a college, office building or housing close to a train station is to let people avoid the highway.

Besides that, parking lots are a lousy way to use space in a city. For starters, a garage or surface does absolutely nothing to the street around it; the foot traffic around it is basically going there to go somewhere else, without lingering. Walking past a lot is a pretty pointless exercise; in terms of street life (retail, small businesses, etc) is a place where the grass doesn't grow. When surface lots are in front of a business or a store, it makes that street aggressively ugly for the pedestrians walking past it; try to do some shopping in a strip mall (the Post Road in Orange or Universal Drive in North Haven) on foot to get a feel about it.

Storefronts, businesses, housing that is far from the sidewalk makes the street in front much less welcoming. You don't walk there; you are far from where you want to go, to the places that have life and activity. Sometimes something as simple as having the lots on the back makes a streetscape completely different; cars need to be hidden to make walking -and the life and energy that it brings- something that we see in our towns.

It is important to think about zoning and parking regulations on these terms: first, do we want that many people to drive there? second, how we hide the cars so the streets remain pedestrian friendly?

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The Rell Budget

Governor Rell just unveiled her budget proposal (full text here, greatest hits here), and to tell the truth, we are still going through it. Heidi will probably give some pointers on the good, the bad and the ugly on it; for know, it seems that I was mistaken and there are no cuts (at least no big ones) on help for cities and education funding. A good thing. In addition, Rell has talked quite a bit on cooperation between towns, positive if well implemented; in that I am a bit less confident.

The amount of reorganizing is pretty substantial on a first look, with a pretty indiscriminate trimming of the miriad of commissions that populate the state. In terms of services, higher education got big cuts, and low income people will be asked to pay more for health care.

Reaction by legislators has been mixed; Jonathan Pelto really, really doesn´t like it, though, and my Left Nutmegg calls it "awful".

Aside of all that, one random question: what´s up with the legislature obsession with a bottle bill? I know it is important, but it is really that important? Can anyone explain?

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

2009 Master Transportation Plan

ConnDot recently released its 2009 Master Transportation Plan. Give it a read, and share your comments.

Some notes of hope for the budget

After my pessimistic take on the Governor's speech, Heidi added on the comments some notes that should make things look a bit less bleak:
Yesterday, the Governor brought David Osborne of Reinventing Government fame to speak with legislators about the need to look at what government should do, how much money we want to raise, what programs have the biggest impact and their costs, and eliminating low-impact programs. You can hear his address on CTN here.

A coalition introduced a Blueprint for Connecticut's Future that recommends strategic cuts, enhancing revenue, using the federal stimulus and the rainy day fund, and reducing tax credits. Read the Blueprint here.

The Better Choices for Connecticut coalition released its recommendations to eliminate the projected deficit through targeted increases in the income, sales, and corporate taxes, tightening up tax expenditures, and using the federal stimulus and the rainy day fund. Read more here.

The budget is bleak, fortunately there are many smart, creative people looking for solutions. Let's work together to embolden our legislative and gubernatorial leadership to be tough and act in our long-term best interest.

Obviously, the wrong thing to do

Downturn forces transit cuts as ridership grows

If there is a reason the stimulus package needs to include money for transit, is this one. It is pretty astonishing (and completely irrational) that in a context where Americans are driving less and using transit more, state and local governments are forced to cut service in order to balance their budgets. Transit makes sense, both in the short term -people are using it now- and the long term, to create a more sustainable, smart growth friendly future.

Obviously, we must go beyond keeping what we have. Places like Meriden will benefit immensely to be a 30 minute rate of both Hartford and New Haven with departures every 30 minutes, for instance. The station is right in the middle of downtown in all three places, so commuting from Meriden will be highly attractive, sending property values and economic activity to a very depressed area almost inmediately.

The infrastructure is there, the money could be there, the technology is there. It is the perfect low-cost, high-return investment.

Removing Market Barriers to Green Developmen

Removing Market Barriers to Green Development Northeast-Midwest Institute, US EPA, Delta Institute

This report provides an overview of the market barriers to green development and outlines principles and action projects to promote widespread adoption of green development practices. 

Monday, February 2, 2009

The Governor's Speech

The governor was on TV today, telling everyone how resilient we people of Connecticut are and how the new budget to be formally introduced in Wednesday will be pretty painful. The speech was short and consequently short on details, but had three important points to pay attention to.

First, the budget will have cuts. Big cuts, for the tone of what the Governor said. That's not a surprise, considering the very dismal situation of the state budget. It is important to point out, however, that despite the usual talk about efficiency and making government smaller because "we can't afford what we have" Connecticut has a pretty average public sector. Actually considering how wealthy the state is, the problem might be that we have a regular-size state budget but a pretty dismal appetite to tax according to it.

Which brings us to the second point, the no new taxes part. Raising taxes across the board during a recession it is indeed a fairly bad idea; the problem in Connecticut, however, is that a strong cuts-only, no new taxes position could indeed mean new taxes somewhere else. This is speculation on my part, but if the state cuts the money for education or PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes; the state's way to compensate towns that host non-profits) this would just shift the burden to local governments.

This would comply with the no increase in taxes on the state side, but would just put a lot of pressure on cities and towns to either raise property taxes or cut budgets even more harshly. We already pointed out that the property tax system is actually pretty terrible; anything that increases the state reliance on this tax is a bad idea. We will get back to it when the full budget is unveiled, just to see if this is actually going to be on the proposal.

Third, we at 1000 Friends have some good, detailed proposals to get the state out of this crisis stronger and better prepared to the challenges of tomorrow, so let me insert a shameless plug to our legislative agenda. The state should try to focus its priorities on growing smart, not just on seeing what can go to the chopping block in cuts that always hurt the same people.

We've got a few cities that could use this kind of leader!

February 1, 2009

Rock Bottom for Decades, but Showing Signs of Life

BRADDOCK, Pa. — As Americans wonder just how horrible the economy will become, this tiny steel town offers a perverse message of hope: Things cannot possibly get any worse than they are here.

Hunched on the eastern edge of the Monongahela River only a few miles from bustling Pittsburgh, Braddock is a mix of boarded-up storefronts, houses in advanced stages of collapse and vacant lots.

The state has classified it a “distressed municipality” — bankrupt, more or less — since the Reagan administration. The tax base is gone. So are most of the residents. The population, about 18,000 after World War II, has declined to less than 3,000. Many of those who remain are unemployed. Real estate prices fell 50 percent in the last year.

“Everyone in the country is asking, ‘Where’s the bottom?’ ” said the mayor, John Fetterman. “I think we’ve found it.”

Mr. Fetterman is trying to make an asset out of his town’s lack of assets, calling it “a laboratory for solutions to all these maladies starting to knock on the door of every community.” One of his first acts after being elected mayor in 2005 was to set up, at his own expense, a Web site to publicize Braddock — if you can call pictures of buildings destroyed by neglect and vandals a form of promotion.

He has encouraged the development of urban farms on empty lots, which employ area youths and feed the community. He started a nonprofit organization to save a handful of properties.

In an earlier era, Braddock was a famed wellspring of industrial might. The steel baron Andrew Carnegie put his first mill in the town, the foundation of an empire that helped build modern America. With the loot and guilt Mr. Carnegie piled up, he also built a library here, the first of more than 1,500 Carnegie libraries in the United States.

Immigrants came to work in the mill, and through ceaseless agitation won union representation that enabled their children — helped by the library on the hill — to achieve a better life.

A local boy, Thomas Bell, celebrated this hard-won success in his autobiographical 1941 novel “Out of This Furnace.” The story recounts the strivings of three generations in Braddock’s mill and their transformation from exploited and maligned “Hunkies” from Eastern Europe into full-fledged Americans.

This year, the town will be featured in the film version of another work of art, Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Road.” Set in a post-Armageddon America where food is so scarce that many survivors turned to cannibalism, “The Road” was shot partially in Braddock.

A town whose story has evolved from building America to making Americans to eating Americans for dinner might seem a hard sell. So Mr. Fetterman, who is paid $150 a month, also promotes Braddock as a place to buy extremely cheap real estate.

Erik and Shannon Gustafson heeded that call. The couple were living in Chicago, where Mr. Gustafson was a part-time commodities trader, when they heard about Braddock last winter. They settled on a two-bedroom house whose owner warned them that it had black mold and was probably a tear-down. Her price: $4,750.

The Gustafsons paid the money and discovered that the mold problem was overstated. “Space is cheap here,” said Mr. Gustafson, 30. “We can afford to focus on our hobbies.” He is a graphic designer; she is a photographer.

Joel Rice, a furniture maker, bought a 15,000-square-foot former car dealership that he is converting to a showroom, workshop and home, with a greenhouse on the roof. The building cost $70,000, perhaps a tenth of what he would have had to pay for a tiny shop in Oregon, where he was living.

It will take at least two more years to clear the debris and put in new wiring, plumbing and fixtures. But Mr. Rice, 38, is undaunted. “If all our effort here crashes and burns,” he said, “it won’t be because we held anything back.”

Unlike many stricken steel towns, Braddock never lost its mill. Part of the U.S. Steel system, it still employs nearly a thousand workers. But they no longer live in town, and the stores followed them to the suburbs. Eventually, only the stubborn and those without resources remained.

“Even the bars and liquor stores closed,” said Ron Kutnansky, who was born in Braddock in 1953 and lived there and in North Braddock for decades.

A custodian at the University of Pittsburgh, Mr. Kutnansky finally moved out three years ago, after his home was broken into for the third time. “It’s a fairly big shame what happened to Braddock,” he said. He sold his house for a dollar, no regrets.

As Mr. Kutnansky was leaving, a political novice was starting to shake things up. Mr. Fetterman, now 39, is hard to miss, at 6-foot-8 and 325 pounds, with a shaved head and goatee. He has a master’s degree in public policy from Harvard but came to Braddock in 2001 to work for a county youth program. He won the May 2005 Democratic primary by exactly one vote. (He faced no opposition in the general election.)

The mayor wears his commitment to Braddock not on his sleeve but under it: On his right arm are tattooed five dates memorializing killings in Braddock during his time in office. The victims included a man delivering a pizza and a 2-year-old girl who was assaulted and then dropped into a snow-covered playground. She froze to death while trying to walk home.

On his other arm is a large 15104, the town’s ZIP code.

This impressed many of the younger residents. “I was shocked, because he’s not even from around here,” said Jeremy Cannon, 23.

Mr. Fetterman’s official powers are limited, partly because of Braddock’s “distressed municipality” status and partly because it is technically a borough overseen by a borough council. The council president, Jesse Brown, did not return telephone calls for an interview.

Mostly, the mayor offers encouragement, ideas and energy. With the financial help of his father, who owns a commercial insurance agency in York, Pa., he also makes direct and indirect investments in local real estate. He set up the nonprofit organization, Braddock Redux, and gave it $50,000 to buy a former Presbyterian church to serve as a community center.

Last year, Mr. Fetterman gave the organization another $12,000 — money he says he got by draining his 401(k) — to buy a duplex and another house next door. The next step was securing a grant from the Buhl Foundation in Pittsburgh to refurbish the buildings for six at-risk teenagers who, at 18, were too old for foster care. Run by two members of AmeriCorps, the group house will open this month.

“Where a lot of people would see a series of negatives — a bankrupt community with deteriorating housing, foster kids aging out of the system and confronting a lack of employment — John saw potential,” said Frederick Thieman, president of the Buhl Foundation.

One of Mr. Fetterman’s biggest coups was persuading a small alternative energy company, Fossil Free Fuel, to secure a warehouse on Braddock Avenue.

“This is a very welcoming place for a business, because it has so few,” said Fossil Free’s co-owner, David Rosenstraus.

All this is movement in the right direction, but the uninhabited buildings are still falling down. Dozens are scheduled for demolition. “If struggling communities don’t preserve their architecture,” Mr. Fetterman said, “there’s no chance of any resurgence down the line.” Sometime soon, he worries, Braddock will pass the point of no return.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Green Building Bill slated for Public Hearing

The Public Safety Committee will receive testimony the raised bill 6284 

To require the State Building Inspector and Codes and Standards Committee to revise the State Building Code to include a model energy code and green building standards for certain new construction or renovation projects. 

The hearing is scheduled for Tuesday 2/3 at 11 in Hearing Room 2C of the Legisaltive Office Building. 

General Assembly


Raised Bill No. 6284

January Session, 2009


LCO No. 2661



Referred to Committee on Public Safety and Security


Introduced by:


(PS )



Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives in General Assembly convened:

Section 1. Section 29-256a of the general statutes is repealed and the following is substituted in lieu thereof (Effective from passage):

(a) On and after [January 1, 2008] July 1, 2010, the State Building Inspector and the Codes and Standards Committee shall revise the State Building Code to [require] adopt a model energy code requiring that buildings and building elements, including residential, be designed to provide optimum cost-effective energy efficiency over the useful life of the building. Such revision shall meet or exceed the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air Conditioning Engineers Standard 90.1 for new construction.

(b) Notwithstanding subsection (a) of this section, on and after July 1, 2010, the State Building Inspector and the Codes and Standards Committee, in consultation with the Commissioner of Public Safety, shall revise the State Building Code to [require that any (1) building, except a residential building with no more than four units, constructed after January 1, 2009, that is projected to cost not less than five million dollars, and (2) renovation to any building, except a residential building with no more than four units, started after January 1, 2010, that is projected to cost not less than two million dollars shall be built or renovated using] include provisions requiring certain buildings, that qualify as a new construction or a major alteration of a residential or nonresidential building, to meet or exceed building construction standards [consistent with or exceeding] concerning the thermal envelope or mechanical systems, including, but not limited to, indoor air quality and water conservation, and the lighting and electrical systems of the building. Such provisions shall reference nationally accepted green building rating systems, including, but not limited to, the [silver building rating of the] Leadership in Energy and Environmental[Design's] Design rating system, [for new commercial construction and major renovation projects, as established by the United States Green Building Council, or an equivalent standard, including, but not limited to, a two-globe rating in] the Green Globes USA design program, as established by the Green Building Initiative, the National Green Building Standard, as established by the National Association of Home Builders, or an equivalent rating system approved by the State Building Inspector and the Codes and Standards Committee[The inspector and the committee shall provide for an exemption for any building if the Institute for Sustainable Energy finds, in a written analysis, that the cost of such compliance significantly outweighs the benefits.] Such requirements shall include a method for demonstrating compliance at the time of application for a permit or for a certificate of occupancy, including, but not limited to, private third party certification or verification of compliance with the relevant portions of such rating systems.

This act shall take effect as follows and shall amend the following sections:

Section 1

from passage


Statement of Purpose:

To require the State Building Inspector and Codes and Standards Committee to revise the State Building Code to include a model energy code and green building standards for certain new construction or renovation projects.

[Proposed deletions are enclosed in brackets. Proposed additions are indicated by underline, except that when the entire text of a bill or resolution or a section of a bill or resolution is new, it is not underlined.]