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Editorial: Managing Growth

A reason for regionalism

Yes, Pennsylvania, there is an upside to the recession - at least, when it comes to controlling sprawl and getting communities to work together.

An unintended dividend from the housing slump and the national recession is that communities now have more time to grow accustomed to the need to plan regionally to shape growth wisely.

A report issued last month by a statewide land-use alliance, 10,000 Friends of Pennsylvania, shows good progress on communities banding together to draft comprehensive plans to guide growth. But it also documents how far the state lags behind in such regional cooperation.

The 10,000 Friends report looked at the seven-year period after 2000, when Harrisburg lawmakers liberalized state laws governing multi-town planning and zoning rules.

It found that 175 multi-community planning efforts were launched, covering nearly a quarter of the state's population. Before 2000, the number of regional pacts could be counted practically on one hand.

In this region, the Pottstown-area planning effort shepherded by Montgomery County planners was cited as a model. The plan targets areas for conservation and growth - including affordable housing - across seven townships and Pottstown.

In Pottstown and other regions, the hope is that these plans will provide the legal muscle to thwart sprawl while also providing builders a more uniform planning and approval process.

The land-use alliance hailed the findings as proof that local leaders were taking a broader view of the value of planning, and that the fruits of these efforts will "mean reduced traffic congestion, improved water quality, and overall better use of our land."

At this rate, though, it will take decades to recruit even a majority of the state's 2,562 local governments to the cause of regional planning. Pennsylvania can't wait that long.

The state was ranked fifth in the nation more than a decade ago in acreage lost annually to development, even though its population barely is growing. Since then, development has slowed but not stopped.

As gas prices drop, there's a risk that sprawl will continue, especially once the housing industry rebounds. With more untargeted growth, communities risk boosting government costs, becoming less competitive amid rising energy prices, and fraying lifestyles that attract residents and businesses.

In its report, 10,000 Friends calls for beefing up state grants for regional plans, and stretching resources with a carrot-and-stick approach that withholds some funding until multi-town plans are finalized. Makes sense. These plans are worthy of foundation support, too.

Also in the works is a related proposal from 10,000 Friends to promote regional sharing of services, which is another remedy when sprawl occurs. The looming state and local budget crunch could spur more cooperation and cost saving - another silver lining from the recession.