Energy & Environment

Saving Smart Growth

EPA has a program locals like. But maybe not for long.
by | April 2007

Most U.S. Environmental Protection Agency efforts aimed at localities could disappear without a whimper of protest from the communities involved. In general, local officials feel that the less EPA gets involved in their affairs, the better. But there's one EPA initiative that localities have grown attached to: the Smart Growth program. And they get upset every year when the program comes under threat from the Bush administration and its budget proposal.

In contrast to many EPA programs, which concern themselves with regulatory fiats, the smart growth office acts in an advisory role, conducting research, handing out grants, and collating and presenting information to local officials making land-use decisions. The program is popular just about everywhere.

In Cheyenne, Wyoming, for instance, the agency helped "bring in a fresh perspective," says Matt Ashby, the city's urban planning director. Cheyenne recently went through the process of drafting a master plan. EPA came in, but rather than imposing cookie-cutter ideas, it orchestrated a dry run, lending expertise about ideas that could be applied in a way that made sense for that particular city.

"In every community, what EPA has done is not only offer best practices," says Rick Cole, city manager in Ventura, California, "but also given very practical advice about how to implement them."

But the very concept of planning doesn't sit well with the libertarian instincts of parts of the Bush administration, and the program has been targeted during tough recent budget years for EPA as a whole. "They've tried to kill it in every possible way," says Martin Harris, director of NACo's Center for Sustainable Communities.

Last year, it took an unusual consortium--not just local officials and environmentalists but also traditional Republican allies such as home builders and Realtors--to save it. From the development community's point of view, smart growth--and the EPA office's ability to bring together warring parties--look a lot better than fighting NIMBYism or no-growth zealotry. "I just find it hard to believe that such a good program was really targeted for budget cuts or elimination," says Kent Jeffreys, of the International Council of Shopping Centers.

Smart Growth is on the chopping block again in the 2008 Bush budget. Backers are hoping the new Democratic majorities in Congress will provide some protection. If so, lots of mayors and city planners will feel a sense of relief--but only for a little while.

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