Exurban sprawl or livable communities?
By PETER PINCHOT
In the last three years, Pike and Sullivan Counties have entered a new period of rapid development, while being annexed as bedroom communities for New York and New Jersey. No matter how we feel about development, we cant control how many people move to this region. Our population will probably double in the next decade no matter what we do.
And yet, for the last century, our towns have been defined in large part by what surrounds them: our exceptional water resources, large blocks of forests and farms, and the wildlife and scenic beauty they support. Now we face the dilemma of how to protect our rural quality of life and our tourism-based economy while growth overwhelms our communities.
But despite this growth, we still have the ability to make a quantum leap forward in good planning. Our challenge is to find solutions for four interrelated problems that impact rural communities during periods of rapid development:
1. Many sprawling subdivisions consume large areas of open space and undermine water quality, wildlife habitat, and the regions rural character.
2. Increased demand for government services causes rising property and school taxes that place an unfair burden on fixed-income households.
3. A lack of planning and infrastructure to support new businesses forces workers to commute long distances to get to good jobs.
4. A lack of affordable housing forces many young workers and retirees to leave the area.
Bad planning deepens these problems. Our present model of large-lot zoning leaves developers no choice but to spread new housing across large areas of open space. There are few incentives for municipalities or developers to build the infrastructure that is needed to bring new businesses to the region. This is a recipe for a declining quality of life in our communities.
Fortunately, there are innovative planning strategies that provide an alternative to sprawl by concentrating a large portion of new growth into dense development that essentially creates new villages and fills in existing communities. Many newcomers to this region are attracted to small towns like Milford, Matamoras, and Narrowsburg. We need to provide planning tools that encourage this kind of compact village development, both lowering the cost of services and producing a functional neighborhood environment.
Smart growth planning initiatives encourage projects that include a mix of residential housing from high-end to inexpensive rentals. The same project can also include commercial, office, and light manufacturing facilities that provide local jobs and boost tax revenues. Of course some new residents will still opt for a more rural setting, and planning should allow some conventional subdivisions as well.
However, by concentrating a large part of future development into village settlements and by building conservation subdivisions, we can protect a large portion of our existing open space, thereby preserving our exceptional water quality, abundant wildlife, and much of our scenic ridges, farms, and forests.
The choice is ours. If we decide to make dramatic reforms in our local and regional planning, we can sustain our local tourism economy, attract new businesses, build livable communities, and protect our natural resources. That would be a wonderful legacy to leave our children.
[Peter Pinchot is the director of Milford Experimental Forest in Milford, PA.]