by Christopher Rizzo

In June 2010 both the New York State Assembly and Senate passed the “Smart Growth Public Infrastructure Policy Act.” The Assembly’s vote was nearly unanimous, 138 to 2.  On August 18, 2010 the Assembly delivered the bill to Governor Paterson.  He should sign it.

Smart Growth, at its most basic level, refers to urban planning that focuses new development towards existing urban areas and public transportation and away from open space, farmland and rural areas.  Several U.S. states have adopted smart growth laws and policies, with varying degrees of success.  Oregon had a strong smart growth statute that required urban growth boundaries to be drawn around existing cities and towns.  But voters passed a ballot initiative several years ago requiring municipalities to compensate landowners for diminution in value that results from the application of the state’s smart growth law. This has seriously chilled municipalities’ willingness to apply smart growth requirements.

New Jersey has adopted a nonbinding smart growth plan that has, by all accounts, done very little to prevent sprawl.  N.J. courts have held that the state’s agencies cannot apply the policies to deny development approvals because the policies’ lack the force of law.   The results of sprawl are plainly visible around the state.  And they are quantifiable.  On August 29, 2010, the N.Y. Times reported on a Rutgers University study released in August 2010 that predicts that New Jersey will run out of developable land by 2050.  This doesn’t mean the state can no longer grow.  But to do so, lawmakers will need to direct that growth back to existing urban centers.  This is what smart growth advocates have been urging for three decades.

New York’s smart growth bill directs certain N.Y.S. agencies to avoid approving, funding or otherwise supporting public infrastructure projects that are inconsistent with the bill’s anti-sprawl goals.  These goals include (a) using existing infrastructure; (b) directing growth towards existing municipal centers; (c) promoting infill development in locations that municipalities themselves have already identified for growth; (d) preserving open space and other natural resources; (e) fostering downtown revitalization–among several others.

Each agency action must be accompanied by a smart growth impact statement explaining how the project meets the bill’s requirements or, if not, why complying with them is not practicable.  Each covered agency must also create a smart growth advisory committee.

A future Green Law blog entry will address the intersection of environmental impact review and smart growth.  I also hope to report on the final passage of the Smart Growth Public Infrastructure Policy Act.