At the statewide smart growth conference held at Proctors last fall, it became clear that under Gov. Paterson (the initiative actually started with Gov. Spitzer, who established a Smart Growth Cabinet), state agencies are starting to take a comprehensive, coordinated approach to land use, with the goal of preventing suburban sprawl, revitalizing cities, saving natural resources and improving quality of life.
Welcome recognition for the new approach came last week with the Smart Growth Leadership Institute’s announcement that New York was one of two states (Missouri being the other) awarded a federal technical assistance grant to promote sustainable land use and water quality protection. This is a far cry from the Gov. Pataki days, when the state was so far from having a smart growth policy that it refused to even use the term.
The environmental impacts of sprawl are well known, including traffic congestion, air and water pollution, loss of farmland, woodland and wetland. But that hasn’t stopped municipal and state leaders from being quick to approve commercial and residential projects, provide tax breaks and other incentives for them, and even build publicly funded water lines and roads to make them happen.
More recently, though, these leaders have started to realize that along with the touted jobs and tax revenues (at least after 10 years or more, when the tax breaks finally end and full tax payments kick in) which come with these projects, there are serious fiscal impacts. Governments assume ongoing costs that can turn the economic development into an economic drain. They include: educating more children, providing more police and emergency services, maintaining those roads and water and sewer lines, cleaning up pollution. As Robert Simpson, president and CEO of the CenterState Corporation for Economic Opportunity, put it: “. . . The business community understands that unfettered and sprawling growth patterns increase the long-term costs of government and strangle economic competitiveness.”
Looked at this way, perhaps the state might have thought twice about providing $1.2 billion in cash and tax breaks for GlobalFoundries to build a chip plant in the middle of a forest in Saratoga County, requiring new roads and a $67 million sprawl-inducing water line, rather than on a site with already-existing infrastructure in one of the Capital Region’s cities. It might have done the same before providing millions in grants and tax incentives to move Beech-Nut to an industrial park in the town of Florida, leaving the village of Canajoharie with a big, empty plant and its residents paying much higher fees to pay off loans for a water and sewer system upgraded in 1992 to handle Beech-Nut’s industrial needs.
Economic development is important, but the incentives must be reasonable and policies targeted so that the projects are of the right scale and in the right place. In the long run, that is the only way to prosperity and sustainability.