Category Archives: Municipal Government
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The 2014 Summit for Smart Growth and Sustainable Communities at Hotel Bethlehem
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Renew Lehigh Valley is a non-profit organization committed to promoting smart growth and smart governance in order to revitalize our core communities, preserve open space, and establish an economically and environmentally sustainable foundation for our region’s future growth.
Come tonight to the Veteran’s Sanctuary, 24 S. 5th Street, Allentown, to share your ideas about how we can make the Lehigh Valley more liveable and walkable for ourselves, our children, and our grandchildren. No need to read! Click here for more info and to register (optional).
Smart Growth is the best framework to contain almost every area of life: housing, food, community, families, work, the economy, entertainment, transportation, conservation, education, art, public safety, social equity, worship, health care, fitness, even time management. During the last 69 years, we have forgotten a fact that mankind knew for millennia – that our built environment deeply affects our psyche in many ways.
A recent report by Smart Growth America, “Building Better Budgets,” says that, “Many municipalities have found that a smart growth approach would improve their financial bottom line. Whether by saving money on upfront infrastructure; reducing the cost of ongoing services like fire, police and ambulance; or by generating greater tax revenues in years to come, community after community has found that smart growth development would benefit their overall financial health. Many of these findings have been made publicly available.
No national survey has examined these savings as a whole until now. This report is the first to aggregate those comparisons and determine a national average of how much other communities can expect to save by using smart growth strategies.
Building Better Budgets: A National Examination of the Fiscal Benefits of Smart Growth Development surveys 17 studies that compare different development scenarios, including a brand- new study of Nashville-Davidson County, TN, commissioned specifically for this report.
The development scenarios included in our analysis are separated into two categories: “Smart growth development” is characterized by more efficient use of land; a mixture of homes, businesses and services located closer together; and better connections between streets and neighborhoods. “Conventional suburban development” is characterized by less efficient use of land with homes, schools and businesses separated and areas designed primarily for driving. While not all studies use these terms, the scenarios in each category share many of these defining traits. A detailed discussion of individual studies is included in the appendices of this report.
The report looks at the costs associated with each development strategy as well as its revenue potential. When compared to one another, we find:
1. In general, smart growth development costs one-third less for upfront infrastructure.
Our survey concluded that smart growth development saves an average of 38 percent on upfront costs for new construction of roads, sewers, water lines and other infrastructure. Many studies have concluded that this number is as high as 50 percent.
Smart growth development patterns require less infrastructure, meaning upfront capital costs, long-term operations and maintenance costs, and, presumably, cost for eventual replacement are all lower. Smart growth development also often uses existing infrastructure, lowering upfront capital costs even more.
2. Smart growth development saves an average of 10 percent on ongoing delivery of services.
Our survey concluded that smart growth development saves municipalities an average of 10 percent on police, ambulance and fire service costs.
The geographical configuration of a community and the way streets are connected significantly affect public service delivery. Smart growth patterns can reduce costs simply by reducing the distances service vehicles must drive. In some cases, the actual number of vehicles and facilities can also be reduced along with the personnel required.
3. Smart growth development generates 10 times more tax revenue per acre than conventional suburban development.
Our survey concluded that, on an average per-acre basis, smart growth development produces 10 times more tax revenue than conventional suburban development.
An opportunity for municipal leaders
Local leaders everywhere can use this information to make better fiscal decisions about development in their region.
The evidence presented in this report suggests improved strategies for land use and development can help local governments maintain and improve their fiscal solvency. As this report shows, smart growth development can reduce costs and in many cases increase tax revenue. This combination means that in some cases smart growth development can generate more revenue than it costs to operate.
These findings are true for any rural, suburban or urban community, anywhere in the country. Local governments throughout the United States are already facing unprecedented challenges in providing high-quality infrastructure and adequate public services to their residents on a tight budget. Choosing financially responsible development patterns can help communities across the country protect their fiscal health for generations to come.”
That’s a compelling argument for smart growth.
The King George Inn has been a South Whitehall historical institution since 1756, but it may soon be a modern hotel and drug store.
Cliff McDermott owned the King George Inn for 42 years before a decline in business pushed him to close the restaurant that is designated as a National Historic Site by the National Park Service. He is now working with a development company to destroy the building and build a hotel or other commercial property.
Below is a letter to the editor of the Morning Call from Renew Lehigh Valley board member and State Representative Robert Freeman.
I was dismayed to read in The Morning Call that the owner of the King George Inn and Hotel Hamilton LLC plan on tearing down the 257-year-old historic structure to make way for a new hotel, bank and possible drug store.
While some might consider this progress, it is not. We lose a significant historic structure in return for more ubiquitous suburban-sprawl commercial structures. Instead of tearing down the King George Inn, the developers, architects and planners involved in this project should incorporate the original stone structure into the plans for the hotel. Incorporating the Inn into the hotel complex would offer restaurant and bar patrons something unique and historic. The developer could even qualify for historic tax credits.
The communities of the Lehigh Valley have lost a number of significant historic structures over the years as the result of misguided urban renewal initiatives and the ever-expanding pattern of suburban sprawl that consumes our landscape. It would be a travesty to see this National Register of Historic Places building torn down when a creative plan to incorporate it into the development could save it and offer something special.
The sale of the building depends on several zoning variances and the next meeting to review those is in two weeks. In the meantime, a MoveOn.org petition has been started to send to legislators when it reaches 2,000 signatures. Right now, it has 1,760. By providing your information on the MoveOn.org page, you can add your name.
In addition to the redundancy of adding another hotel and drug store to an area that is rife with commercial amenities, given its proximity to Dorney Park, the destruction of the King George Inn would be detrimental to South Whitehall’s sense of place. Smart growth and sustainability are not concepts that we should apply only to new construction. Historic buildings have a place in creating the distinct character of a community. Some of the most notable features of the Lehigh Valley are the historic ones; the maintenance of the blast furnaces at the old Bethlehem Steel site amid new construction is one example. Revitalizing our core communities does not require demolition, but rather the careful planning of necessary commodities with respect for the heart and soul of the area.
We’ve all seen the copious quantities of garbage cans that line our streets and trash closets on collection day and it seems almost impossible that anyone could run out of garbage but it’s happened to Sweden. The country has actually run out of trash.
Cities in Sweden burn garbage for the energy to power their buildings and plants; nearly half of the structures in Oslo are powered by the burning of garbage. Sweden’s use of garbage for fuel, coupled with their extensive and popular recycling programs leaves only 4 percent of their solid waste going to landfills. What percent of household trash from the United States ends up in a landfill, you ask? An estimated 50 percent. In fact, one garbage burning plant owner in Oslo has expressed interest in purchasing American garbage. They’re already paying neighboring countries for their trash.
Available data for landfill use in the United States is a little bit old, but nevertheless startling. In 2003, Americans landfilled 2.46lbs of garbage…per person….per day. We have 3,091 active landfills across the states and while we are in no danger of running out of fill, we should consider that we may run out of land.
In the Lehigh Valley, there has been some discussion about the necessary expansion of the IESI Bethlehem landfill that operates off of Applebutter Road in Lower Saucon Township. The expansion would require a rezoning of the nearby area to accommodate waste, but the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission voted against this redesignation. So, where is the trash to go? The United States recycles 34.7 percent of its Municipal Solid Waste (MSW), burns 11.7 percent of it and discards 53.7 percent. With our population and rate of consumption, this leaves us with a lot of stuff packing our landfills while our municipalities are opposed to expanding landfills.
Should we start burning our trash for energy like Sweden? Try to recycle more? Or should we sell our trash?
What do you think is the SUSTAINABLE solution for the Lehigh Valley?
What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.
Currently a township, Whitehall is considering the requirements and consequences for their designation as a city, and from the rapid growth in its population it looks like Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton may have a new member in the city-club of the region.
Whitehall is a first class township and is eligible to change their designation to third-class city after a voter referendum and a council change to their home charter rules. Their population, at the time of the 2010 census, was 26,738 just below Easton’s population of 26,800. Although their population nearly mirrors a neighboring city, there are other considerations in changing a municipality’s designation. There are many benefits in Pennsylvania to becoming a city. For example, only cities are eligible for certain tax incentive programs from the state like the Neighborhood Improvement Zone (NIZ) and the Community Revitalization Improvement Zone (CRIZ). Cities have more departments and authorities, like their own independent housing authority, which Whitehall Mayor Ed Hozza has said would be an important element to the now-township. The increase in size and scope of municipal government that comes with a change from township to city obviously isn’t free. The idea to change Whitehall into a city is still in its early stages and the cost to taxpayers is a major consideration right now.
The proposed change in Whitehall’s designation will hopefully spark an interesting conversation in Pennsylvania about the nearly unparalleled fragmentation and silo-like nature of the state’s local governance. The process of turning into a city may cause other municipalities to consider joining in a merger with Whitehall. The city of Bethlehem is the product of several borough mergers. Bethlehem was first formed in the Borough of South Bethlehem, a separate Borough of West Bethlehem. Decades later, the Borough of West Bethlehem joined with the Borough of Bethlehem (in Lehigh County). Finally, in the 20th century, the City of Bethlehem merged with the Borough of South Bethlehem to create the City of Bethlehem that we have today. Whitehall Township has several neighboring boroughs that may benefit from a merging with Whitehall Township to become the City of Whitehall. One such borough that could benefit is Coplay. With a population of under 5,000, a shared physical border and a combined school district, their merge makes sense and wouldn’t result in a decrease of services to Coplay residents. Another benefit to the merge is eligibility for a CRIZ. The CRIZ mandates a population over 30,000 which Whitehall Township doesn’t have on its own but would with the addition of Coplay residents.
If you’re a regular reader of the Renew Lehigh Valley blog here (which you should be!), you may have already heard of the hollowing out of the urban cores in our region as the population left cities in favor of new, sprawling second class townships. This was highlighted by a 2003 Brookings Report called Back to Prosperity. Some of the contributing research for this report detailed the excessive, small-box government that plagues Pennsylvania. There are 2,562 municipalities in the Keystone State each with their own municipal governing body. They range in size from 1.5 million in Philadelphia to the Borough of Centralia with 8 residents at the time of the 2010 Census.
In this state, they are broken down into cities, townships, boroughs and one town (Bloomsburg). Within those classifications there are first class cities (Philadelphia is the only one), second class cities (Scranton is the only one) and third class cities. There are first and second class townships and unclassified boroughs.
The Lehigh Valley alone has 62 municipalities (Northampton and Lehigh Counties). This fragmentation and duplication of efforts and services promotes sprawl and inhibits regionalism. Municipalities in Pennsylvania are permitted to create their own comprehensive plans and are not bound to formally adopt the regional comprehensive plan that is written by the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission. Changes in state policy that would encourage smaller municipalities to merge with their neighbors would increase the efficiency of service provision, minimize redundancies and create a more amenable environment for regional efforts.
After years of financial distress, Detroit filed for Chapter 9 Municipal Bankruptcy late last week. It becomes the first major city in United States history to do so.
Detroit has debt totaling $18 million. The unemployment rate in the city recently peaked at 28 percent and while it is has been declining, it remains at over 16 percent. The rate of crime is high and the industrial plants that used to populate the city are folding or leaving the city. Detroit is also facing grossly underfunded pension obligations and they will argue that the court should relieve them of these pension obligations. Naturally, their retirees and unions are beginning to launch a fierce battle against this.
While Pennsylvanian cities and municipalities are not yet facing the degree of financial strife that plagues Detroit, its distressed areas are met with similar considerations. Should Detroit be relieved of their pension obligations, it will set a precedent relevant in Pennsylvania where municipalities are mandated to fulfill the pension promises they have made to police and firemen under PA Act 111. They can receive financially distressed status under PA Act 47, which allows them to restructure their debt and consolidate or merge with neighboring municipalities to ease their individual burden. There are many municipalities who are now realizing the enormity of their pension obligations, and have very few choices except bankruptcy. Twenty municipalities in the state, including its capital, already have Act 47 designation that has helped them stabilize their financial status, but hasn’t provided stable, long term solutions to their economic problems.
While Act 47 allows municipal consolidation, there needs to be better understanding of the benefits of merging. A financially failed municipality with heavy debt and pension obligations is not a promising merge partner for a healthy, neighboring municipality. However, the possibility of shared services and decreased cost in service provision to the stronger municipality should be used as a selling point in these consolidation discussions. Both municipalities can benefit from consolidation and eventually provide higher quality, lower cost services to their constituents while one emerges from Act 47, distressed status.
If these negotiations and state laws are your interest, keep your eyes open for more information on Renew Lehigh Valley’s smart growth conference coming this fall. One of the available workshops will focus exclusively on Act 47, Act 111 and municipal bankruptcy in Pennsylvania with an expert panel featuring Fred Reddig from Pennsylvania’s Local Government Commission and Tom Baldridge of the Lancaster Chamber of Commerce.
For decades it was a given that growing suburban communities benefit from the development that comes their way. Township supervisors were eager for development to expand the tax base of their municipality. It didn’t take long, however, for residents and local officials to begin to see the downside from sprawl as open space disappeared, roads became jammed with traffic, and the unique crossroad villages of their previously sleepy rural township became consumed by an endless, mind numbing array of strip malls, track housing, and nondescript industrial parks. The local sense of place was lost to the ubiquitous auto-bound culture that is suburban sprawl.
Early studies indicated that not all development was good for the tax base. Although industrial development generated revenue and made little demands on services and commercial development usually was a break even proposition, residential development most definitely did not pay for itself when built in a low density fashion. Housing brought kids which put a strain on the school system, requiring more teachers and class rooms to teach a burgeoning student population. Transporting students by bus across spread out distances added more cost to educating our youth. More residents meant eventual need for a professional police department, perhaps a professional fire department, and expanded demand for parks and other recreational amenities. Single use zoning required more roads to connect the dots of life among sprawl and all of this cost more than property taxes on residential units would be able to sustain over the long term.
Now a new report from Smart Growth America provides additional evidence that sprawl is expensive and costs a lot more than traditional neighborhood development does. Surveying 17 studies of compact versus sprawl development across the country revealed that compact development cost 38 percent less in upfront infrastructure than sprawl because it requires fewer miles of roads, sewer, and water lines than the low density pattern of development that is the norm in suburbia. Compact development also cost 10% less in ongoing service delivery costs by reducing distances that police, fire protection, and garbage trucks have to travel to serve residents. On top of it more traditional, compact models of development yield, on average, about 10 times more tax revenue per acre. It’s all pretty obvious but culturally elusive that traditional town development would yield higher revenues, while reducing delivery of service costs, and reducing infrastructure costs too.
Building in a more compact, denser form does not mean overcrowding. Indeed, some of our most cherished communities in America are built with anywhere from 10 to 15 residential units an acre and accommodate both the car and pedestrian in a walkable, multi-travel-route street grid with tree shaded sidewalks. The mixed use nature of traditional development lends itself to greater walkability, convenience, vitality, and the vibrancy that come from a mixed use setting of homes, shops, schools, parks and places of employment all within a compact form. Think of places like Georgetown, Savannah, Park Slope in Brooklyn, or the Lehigh Valley’s extremely stable and desirable neighborhoods of College Hill in Easton, Allentown’s West End or Bethlehem’s downtown neighborhood located around Main, New, Church, and Market Streets and you begin to get the picture. In addition to the wonderful quality of life factors that come from traditional patterns of development and foster a true sense of community, more compact development simply yields a better tax base with less of the costs that come from the spread out, overextended pattern of development that is suburban sprawl. For more details on the Smart Growth America report, go to: http://www.theatlanticcities.com/neighborhoods/2013/05/quantifying-cost-sprawl/5664/.Our guest blogger, Representative Robert Freeman, represents the 136th Legislative District of Northampton County. During his previous 12 years in the House, Freeman served as chairman of the House Select Committee on Land Use and Growth Management (1991-92), which recommended ways to improve growth management and reduce sprawl. He was one of the leaders in revising the Municipalities Planning Code in 2000 and authored the Elm Street Program designed to revitalize older residential neighborhoods. The Elm Street legislation was signed into law in February 2004. He also teaches a course at Lehigh University entitled on growth management and the politics of sprawl. Representative Freeman joined the Renew Lehigh Valley Board of Directors in 2013.
How does the protection of farmland correlate to the health of a community? Kane County, Illinois is working to find out.
Over the past ten years, their farmland protection program has preserved over 5500 acres of farmland in the county and they are currently considering a new amendment to broaden investments in local food production. New investments would include small farms and organic farmers producing fruits, vegetables and meats, intended to increase availability of fresh produce in schools, farmers markets, corner stores, and other sites in the community.
Enter the Health Impact Project. HIP is a project funded by the Pew Charitable Trust and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to fund Health Impact Assessments (HIA) that will be used to inform policies at any level of government. Kane County won funding from this project and is expected to produce their HIA next month with measurements from their community. The HIA will assess the ways in which their new amendment could affect the health of local residents through, for example, changes in availability and price of fresh fruits and vegetables, food safety, and economic changes resulting from increased food production in the region.
HIAs are conducted by a panel of stakeholders in the community to ensure that they are engaged in considering health and health disparities with any given policy. The assessment is completed in six steps:
A Health Impact Assessment has six steps:
- Screening: Determines the need and value of a HIA;
- Scoping: Determines which health impacts to evaluate, the methods for analysis, and the work plan for completing the assessment;
- Assessment: Provides: a) profile of existing health conditions, and b) evaluation of health impacts;
- Recommendations: Provides strategies to manage identified adverse health impacts;
- Reporting: Includes development of the HIA report and communication of findings and recommendations; and
- Monitoring: Tracks impacts of the HIA on decision making processes and the decision, as well as impacts of the decision on health determinants.
Kane County hopes to use this assessment to inform the debate surrounding their new amendment, hoping that they will find it could lead to improved health.
The Health Care Council of the Lehigh Valley is doing similar work much closer to home. They created a forum process where they engaged stakeholder organizations from the Valley to discuss their input on community health, and held two series of meetings. In the second set of meetings, they were able to bring back results and analysis from the first round. Participants in the forums were asked what they thought the biggest health concerns in the region were, what would help their community become healthier and what leads to health problems in their area. They were asked follow up questions to these in the second round of meetings.
In these public meetings held last fall, they found that the health care system and services are fragmented, that there is a lack of communication and connection between the community and care providers as well as poverty, lack of jobs and language differences being barriers of access to medical resources. There were also positive findings, the community responded that the local health care providers care about the community and were willing to listen to their needs as well as looking for short and long term solutions to improve community health. Their Community Health Profile breaks down their findings and the particular issues in each city, and can be found here.