Smart growth responses

Before 1980

Ohio was once a national leader in land use planning. In 1915, one of the first statutes for municipal planning in the U.S. was drafted by Cincinnati attorney and planning law pioneer, Alfred Bettman. Subsequently, Ohio law influenced national legislation for planning, municipal zoning, and regional planning. The landmark 1926 U.S. Supreme Court decision that upheld the constitutionality of zoning (Village of Euclid v. Ambler Realty Co., 272 U.S. 365) originated in Ohio.

Since that progressive beginning, however, Ohio has slipped well behind other states. The last attempt at a comprehensive reform of the state's land use planning and regulatory structure came in 1975 when the General Assembly created the Ohio Land Use Review Committee to look at planning and land use control at the state, regional, county, township, and municipal levels. According to Ohio land use law expert Stuart Meck:

The committee's report was released in 1977 and proposed a broad array of changes. They included greater responsibilities for county and regional planning commissions, procedures for large-scale development review, and enhanced authority for municipal and county planning commissions. The report also suggested that regional tax-base sharing, a mechanism implemented in the Twin Cities area by which local governments share in a portion of the growth of the commercial and industrial real property tax base, should be studied further. As these recommendations were aimed chiefly at local governments, the report did not indicate any dramatic changes in responsibilities for state agencies. While omnibus legislation was introduced to implement the report's recommendations, it was never enacted because of lack of strong political support for the changes suggested by the Committee.25

Why planning reforms failed in Ohio in the 1970s

  • Opposition of agricultural interests in Ohio. They were worried that the legislation would place limitations on farmers to have their cake and eat it, too-to get tax breaks for preferential agricultural use valuation (the valuation of property at its farm, rather its speculative use) and still be able to sell it for development whenever they wanted to with no or minimal penalty.
  • Opposition of some local government associations. They were against the bill because it limited local government discretion, curtailed arbitrariness, seemed to require a "reason" for governmental actions, required consistency, and called for expenditure of funds for planning prior to regulation.
  • A four-track system in Ohio with vigorously competing interests-counties, townships, statutory plan municipalities, home-rule municipalitieswith no incentive to work together for a single system or across local government boundaries to minimize adverse impacts of development and spread around its benefits.
  • A highly dispersed urban state with each urban area seeing issues in a different way-the due process you get in Cleveland is different from the due process you get in Cincinnati.
  • Lack of support by a small, narrowly-focused environmental movement, now mostly concerned with landfills and groundwater rather than broader issues of land management which animate environmentalists elsewhere.
    No growth management movement or impetus to start one-no perceived mismatch between rapid development and lack of supporting infrastructure. Planning legislation was viewed as anti-economic development. Ohio was trying to hold onto what growth it had rather than trying to slow it down.
  • A state government that had no activist tradition either at the executive or legislative levels in the areas of housing, infrastructure, or the environment, much less in the provision of local government assistance.

Finally, the impact of what I call the "garage-sale school" of land use regulation-the still-prevalent philosophy here in Ohio that local government planning operations can be run sloppily (like a garage sale), with little attention to detail, because there were no terrible (meaning monetary) consequences for screwing up or endlessly jacking around developers and home builders with procedural delays.

-Stuart Meck,
from an article in the
EcoCity Cleveland Journal26

The 1990s

In the 1990s there was a new wave of interest in growth management issues in Ohio. A primary focus became farmland preservation, as suburban sprawl around the state's metro areas visibly ate into prime farmland and threatened to undermine the agricultural economy.

In response, Governor George Voinovich created, by executive order, the Ohio Farmland Preservation Task Force in 1996. After conducting hearings around the state, which were well attended by citizens from both rural and urban areas, the task force made its report in 1997. It concluded:

Preservation of a healthy agricultural economy and urban revitalization are two sides of the same coin. Strategic planning for the one must incorporate the dynamics of the other. Even though there is farmland loss in growing rural counties, it is the loss of farmland on the edges of municipalities that threaten Ohio's agricultural and economic vitality as well as the fabric of Ohio's small towns and rural communities&

Farmland loss cannot be reduced without strong state support for redevelopment and maintenance of central cities and older suburbs, and for compact rural development. State government affects the conversion of agricultural land to other uses through land acquisition, development projects and financial assistance for public and private development, but no state plan currently exists to ensure uniformly that state actions do not irretrievably convert agricultural land to other uses when alternatives are available. In fact, ample evidence exists that many state program implementation policies undermine local objectives of farmland preservation.27

Among the task force recommendations was a proposal to encourage local governments to prepare comprehensive land use plans. Such plans would, in turn, encourage the preservation of farmland, the efficient use of public infrastructure investments, the use of agriculturally supportive zoning, and the managed expansion of urban and suburban areas, including the identification of urban service areas. The task force recommended that the state provide matching grants and technical assistance for the preparation of local comprehensive land use plans. A bill that incorporated numerous task force recommendations (including a proposal for voluntary countywide comprehensive plans), H.B. 645, was introduced in the Ohio House in December 1997, but it was not enacted (although it had bipartisan sponsorship, it failed for some of the same reasons that legislation in the '70s failed). On the other hand, a companion proposal to authorize the purchase of agricultural conservation easements was enacted. In addition, the state created an Office of Farmland Preservation in the Department of Agriculture, which is charged with developing a strategy to preserve farmland.

While the Farmland Preservation Task Force did not result in major changes, it raised the profile of growth management issues and gave them added credibility. At the same time, a number of other actors were coming to the stage to talk about growth and development issues. They came from different perspectives - rural preservation, urban redevelopment, environmental protection, economic development, transportation reform, social justice. And they came from different fields - community activism, academia, business, city government, planning, faith-based organizations. But together they formed a loose, ad hoc movement.

Here are a few of the significant actors who emerged in the latter half of the 1990s:

  • Ohio State University ExtensionExtension staff members organized "Managing Change" coalitions around the state to educate citizens about growth management options. They also organized two statewide conferences about land use and development issues-"Growth & the Future" in 1997 and "Better Ways to Develop Ohio" in 1999. The conferences were well attended and served an education role.
  • First SuburbsOne of the most significant organizational developments of the late 1990s was the formation of the First Suburbs Consortium of Northeast Ohio. The FSC was created by elected officials of inner-ring suburbs in response to the recognition that government policies and practices promote the development of new communities at the outer edges of metropolitan regions over the redevelopment and maintenance of mature suburbs. The FSC now is a council of governments with 14 member cities working to revitalize mature, developed communities and raise public and political awareness of the problems and inequities associated with urban sprawl and disinvestment. The FSC also has reached out to older suburbs in Columbus, Cincinnati, and other metro areas in Ohio, so now there is a statewide network of first suburbs. The group has received national attention as a model for addressing the special needs of older suburbs, and it can provide a political base for future statewide organizing.
  • EcoCity ClevelandEcoCity Cleveland focuses primarily on Northeast Ohio, but it has networked statewide on smart growth issues and has represented Ohio in national smart growth networks, such as the Growth Management Leadership Alliance (GMLA). In 1998, EcoCity hosted a national meeting of smart growth advocates and used the occasion to convene a statewide gathering in support of the "Ohio Smart Growth Agenda."28 The agenda was prepared by EcoCity and researchers at the American Planning Association, and it provides a solid policy foundation for smart growth initiatives in Ohio. Among those present to endorse the agenda were First Suburbs elected officials from throughout the state, City of Cleveland officials, Cleveland Bishop Anthony Pilla, state representatives, and members of the Ohio Farmland Preservation Task Force.
  • Church in the CityIn 1993, Cleveland Bishop Anthony Pilla issued a white paper called "The Church in the City," which argued that urban sprawl was a moral and social justice issue because outmigration was creating two regions-rich and poor, black and white. The Cleveland Catholic Diocese developed a series of Church in the City programs aimed at raising consciousness about our divided society and the underlying dynamics of regional development. This culminated in a major symposium in 1998. The moral weight of the church added substantial credibility to the smart growth discussion.
  • Faith-based organizingIn addition to the Church in the City initiative, a number of other faith-based organizing efforts around the state have made sprawl and outmigration a focus of organizing efforts. These include the AMOS Project in Cincinnati, BREAD in Columbus, NOAH in the Cleveland/Lorain area, and Action of Youngstown.
  • Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs)Partly as a result of federal transportation reforms in the late 1990s, some of the state's MPOs began to re-examine their transportation plans and question highway projects that would induce greater urban sprawl. Not a lot has changed on the ground (in part because MPOs have no control over land use), but the increased debate has helped underscore the need for land use management statewide.
  • Urban University Program (UUP)Members of Ohio's network of urban universities have contributed important research on development patterns around the state's metropolitan areas. Annual UUP statewide forums have served as networking opportunities for smart growth advocates and have gotten state officials to speak on the record about the subject.
  • Brownfields advocatesGroups across the state made brownfield redevelopment an important issue in the '90s. They worked to streamline regulations and obtain more state funding for remediation-and in the process helped to bring greater state attention to urban redevelopment needs. Governor Bob Taft appointed an Urban Redevelopment Task Force, which resulted in a new urban redevelopment office in the Department of Development and cleanup funds in the Clean Ohio bond issue.
  • Open space advocatesSupplementing farmland preservation efforts, a diverse collection of open space and greenway advocates grew stronger during this time. Many communities embarked on the development of recreational trails that crossed municipal and county lines and began to link regions together in new ways. In some parts of the state, land trusts became significant players in the preservation of open space. And rural communities began to contemplate "conservation development" alternatives to large-lot zoning for new subdivisions.
  • The mediaAt some point in the '90s, the Ohio media discovered sprawl. The Plain Dealer, for example, went from printing the term "urban sprawl" in quotes, as if the editors questioned its existence, to printing serious stories. In 1996, the Columbus Dispatch published an outstanding, five-day series, "The Price of Progress," on growth pressures in the Columbus region. Other papers also did major series. And in Northeast Ohio, the public radio and television stations teamed up on a special series on sprawl. The prominent local coverage, combined with many stories in national publications, helped to make sprawl a household word.
  • Regional convenersAnother kind of organization also emerged during this time-groups with a regional focus who brought citizens and elected officials together to discuss the region's future. These included the Northeast Ohio Regional Alliance and Citizens for Civic Renewal (Cincinnati). The Cincinnati region's business community also got involved by creating the Metropolitan Growth Alliance, which sponsored a major study of the region's place in the global economy.29
  • Local grassroots groupsOn a local basis, countless small groups rose and fell. Most were NIMBY groups, organized to fight a specific development or road project. Although few lasted long, the agitation of thousands of people fighting for their communities kept the heat on elected officials and made growth and development issues a bigger part of local Ohio politics. (One group with more staying power is the Smart Growth Coalition of Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky.)

The above list covers only a few of the actors who had some role in smart growth discussions. A more complete list of constituencies who have stake in smart growth appears on page 26.

Since 2000

In some respects, smart growth activities have ebbed in the past couple of years. But while there may not be the same volume of conferences and new organizations, there have been a number of significant initiatives, including:

The $400 million Clean Ohio Bond issue passed in November 2000 with 57 percent of the vote, signaling that Ohioans are prepared to spend money to preserve open space, protect clean water, and revitalize cities. (On the other hand, one could argue that Clean Ohio is a diversion, since the modest amount of money provided will not alter development patterns in the state, and the campaign to pass and implement Clean Ohio consumed resources that might have been used to promote more systemic changes.)
First Suburbs organizations continued to develop. The state network is working with the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission to develop a briefing kit for state legislators.
Big city mayors (now all Democrats who seem to get along with each other) are meeting to develop an urban agenda for Ohio.

The informational infrastructure continued to deepen, as "Orfield" studies of fiscal and social disparities (i.e., studies by Myron Orfield's Metropolitan Area Research Corporation) were completed for the Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Youngstown regions. The state's urban universities have continued to study the impact of present growth trends.
A few state legislators continue to maintain interest in smart growth issues. For example, in February 2002, State Rep. Ed Jerse convened a legislative informational hearing on the implications of the impending build-out of Cuyahoga County.30

  • The City of Columbus is promoting traditional neighborhood design as an alternative to sprawl. Columbus-area advocates have organized 1000 Friends of Central Ohio to promote smart growth.
  • The Cincinnati region continues to debate its land use future. The Hamilton County Regional Planning Commission is leading a broad-based comprehensive planning process, Community COMPASS.
  • A Metro Smart Growth Partnership has developed in the Toledo area.
  • Reflecting concerns that development trends are degrading the Lake Erie watershed, the Ohio Lake Erie Commission has organized a Balanced Growth Blue Ribbon Panel to recommend ways that development can occur in greater harmony with natural systems. This is one of the state's first, tentative steps toward figuring out how to promote smart growth.
  • Recognizing that the housing market is shifting, the Home Builders Association of Northeast Ohio began a Smart Growth Education Foundation to help educate local governments about achieving more compact forms of development. Recently, the group announced an awards competition for developments that exemplify the principles of smart growth.
  • Environmental and conservation groups continued to develop statewide networks for collaboration. The League of Conservation Voters convened the Ohio Conservation and Environmental Forum, and the LCV Education Fund conducted a database "list enhancement" project to improve groups' capacity to contact member/voters. In addition, the Ohio chapter of the Sierra Club convened a series of meetings for smart growth advocates to discuss strategy.


All this activity around the state has accomplished the following:

  • Public educationMore citizens and public officials are aware of the problems caused by conventional development patterns.
  • Understanding of regional connectionsMore people are aware that development in one part of a metro area often comes at the expense of another part of the region.
  • Core of activistsThere are knowledgeable smart growth activists around the state who can form the core of larger efforts in the future.
  • Broader constituenciesSprawl has become not just an issue for a few tree huggers. Many more constituencies understand that metropolitan growth problems underlie their issues as well.
  • Media sensitivityMedia outlets around the state understand that growth issues are important stories (although, except for the occasional series, they still tend to cover them in an ad hoc, fragmented way).
  • Policy developmentThe first cut at policy recommendations has been done.
  • Message developmentThe first cut at message development has been done.


The accomplishments listed above are significant in a state like Ohio, but they should not be sugarcoated. All this interest and activity revolving around the idea of smart growth has not moved Ohio very far toward the real goal-changing the location and form of development. Instead, the juggernaut of sprawl development continues unabated. Highways keep getting widened. New subdivisions march across the cornfields. Wetlands continue to be filled. Older communities continue to decline.

  • In the late '90s there was a sense of a smart growth movement coming together. But the movement did not jell, and there were no major changes on the Ohio political landscape. Why? Of course, the forces of sprawl are huge, and Ohio is a difficult arena within which to promote any comprehensive change. But the smart growth efforts themselves have had major weaknesses, including a lack of leadership, strategy, and resources:
  • LeadershipIn other states where smart growth has made meaningful advances, there has been strong leadership from top political leaders. In Ohio, we have a governor who is focused on other issues, and we have a General Assembly that is controlled increasingly by interests who are hostile to planning and who have a narrow view of property rights. Nonprofit organizations also have not provided strong leadership, although they have played important roles at local and regional levels. We don't have a strong "1000 Friends-type" group with a statewide reach.
  • In the late '90s, several statewide networks were organized-1000 Friends of Ohio, Ohioans for Smart Growthbut they were short-lived. None were able to attract the people and resources needed to become significant organizations.
  • StrategyWe have had no comprehensive strategy-no strategy that defines what winning means and lays out a step-by-step process to victory. Instead, we have had events like conferences, which (although valuable as educational experiences) were seen as ends in themselves, not means to a larger end.
  • ResourcesNo one has been able to raise the funds (or even attempted to do so) to develop the strategy and carry out the organizing needed to pull off a statewide campaign. To win anything substantial on smart growth, the effort and the funding will have to be serious.

Obviously, all these elements are interrelated. A sound strategy won't work without effective leadership. Funding won't be available without a strategy and credible leaders. An organization won't make the leap of faith to develop a strategy unless there is a reasonable hope that funding will be available. And so on.

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