Energy & Environment

Smart Air

EPA is delivering cities and their fast-growing suburbs intimidating lessons on the consequences of sprawling development.
by | July 2000

Tom Arrandale

Tom Arrandale is a GOVERNING correspondent.

State and local officials are discovering that environmental policy and growth management are closely linked. For those who haven't figured that out yet, the federal Clean Air Act is delivering intimidating lessons on the environmental consequences of sprawling development.

In Texas, for instance, environmentalists are threatening to go to court to halt road projects unless Houston and Galveston control growth that encourages smog-creating traffic. And they've got their models--one of them being Georgia.

Two years ago, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency moved to withhold hundreds of millions of dollars in federal transportation funding because Atlanta and its fast-growing suburbs persistently violate the law's ground-level ozone standard. Desperate to keep money flowing for cherished highway projects, the Georgia legislature within a year empowered Governor Roy Barnes to create and enforce the country's most ambitious regional growth management strategy.

Controlled by the governor, the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority holds the power to dictate land use as well as transportation decisions in the 13-county Atlanta metropolitan area. That's a momentous change, given that communities in Georgia and other Sun Belt states have taken it for granted that pell-mell growth validates local civic virtue. But the bottom line is that EPA rewarded Georgia earlier this year by approving the state's revamped clean air plan. After consistently missing clean air deadlines over the past 30 years, the region and its local chambers of commerce and industrial groups have been notified that regulators are getting serious.

It is not a prospect that everyone appreciates. "Atlanta's recent experience reflects a chilling trend toward the federal takeover of metropolitan regions," cautions Angela M. Antonelli, director of environmental and economic studies for the conservative Heritage Foundation.

Environmentalists respond that the Clean Air Act's hammers are finally working the way Congress intended. EPA meanwhile has begun studying how to give states and regions credits toward meeting air- quality goals when they adopt growth controls that reduce automobile exhaust emissions. In one possible precedent, federal regulators granted Atlanta permission to build a $50 million interstate highway bridge that will make it feasible to redevelop an abandoned inner-city steel mill near downtown. Since people living and working at the 138- acre site wouldn't drive cars so much, EPA's modeling calculates that the Atlantic Steel project would create 45 percent fewer smog-causing emissions than a comparable development on the city's greenfield fringes.

That makes sense. The air-quality benefits may be speculative, but there are many sound reasons to rebuild inner-city brownfields while preserving greenfields on outer metropolitan boundaries. Georgia officials no doubt could have figured that out without wasting time in convoluted negotiations with federal air-quality planners. EPA has more consequential things to do than second-guess local land use decisions. But free-market enthusiasts warn that Atlanta's struggles show that federal regulators will jump at the chance to override county and municipal authority.

In too many places, however, developers and Realtors still hold disproportionate power to bend local land use planning to their interests. You can see what that's created by driving on traffic- choked roads through monotonous urban spaces from Florida to Washington State. You can also breathe the smog, and you might end up drinking contaminants that wash into water supplies from the congested streets, badly graded parking lots and overloaded septic tanks that poorly planned development leaves behind.

Georgia, Maryland and a number of other states already are trying to prevent that from happening over and over again by implementing smart- growth policies. State environmental agencies have spent the past three decades just trying to catch up with the air and water contamination that's the consequence of past industrial and residential growth that city and county governments have sanctioned. At least in some states, the environmental commissioners are suggesting it's time that they start having a say before cities and counties accommodate more pollution that their agencies will have to clean up.

Most likely, mayors and councilors won't take directives from state capitals any more kindly than they've accepted mandates from Washington, D.C. Builders and Realtors have a point when they argue that most homebuyers still dream of living in typical suburban neighborhoods. But the same people now also demand that open space be saved, and they're increasingly aware that past development patterns have created disjointed communities with degraded air and water quality.

Communities that no longer offer an appealing--and environmentally wholesome--quality of life will be the future's economic losers. Smart growth can sell, and state and local officials shouldn't need EPA to force them to reach that conclusion.


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