Suggestions for an
organizational strategy

What would put smart growth over the top in Ohio? Here are some ideas for discussion. They focus on the steps of a strategy-developing the goals, analyzing the opposition, attracting the right leadership, networking allies, and conducting a campaign to win.

Policy goals

What would change if "smart growth" were adopted in Ohio? Well, winning would mean that we would see more of the features of smart growth described on pages 5-7. Thus, in Ohio it would become easier to redevelop existing cities and towns, achieve a mix of land uses, create a diversity of housing choices, build walkable neighborhoods, preserve open space, provide a variety of transportation options, and engage citizens in the planning process. It would become harder to do the opposite.

Achieving smart growth, then, requires shifting the balance of development within metropolitan regions (promoting more development in existing communities and less in the countryside). Since individual municipalities have little influence over regional development patterns, policy changes will be needed at the state and federal levels. The state is especially important because it sets the "rules of the game" for planning and local land use control. The state also exerts influence over the location of development through transportation spending and economic development incentives.

In 1998, EcoCity Cleveland worked with researchers at the American Planning Association to recommend what the state should do to promote smarter development. This "Ohio Smart Growth Agenda" found: 1) state investments, policies, and programs greatly influence where development is occurring in the state; 2) state departments have no overall vision regarding growth and development in Ohio and tend to pursue their missions narrowly; and 3) other states provide promising models for how state government can do a better job managing growth. For example, Maryland's Smart Growth program, which aims to direct state investment to existing urban areas rather than subsidizing more sprawl, would have a positive impact in Ohio, and it could be adapted to Ohio's political and historical situation.31

To adopt such a smart growth strategy, Ohio needs:

  • Coordination and planning: The creation of a high-level organization in state government to coordinate among state departments and promote sound planning at all levels. A first task would be an inventory of all state policies and programs that influence development.
  • Land use goals: The drafting of a cross-cutting development, redevelopment, and resource conservation goals document for the state.
  • Targeted investments: Development of an incentive-based state investment program that targets state growth-related expenditures (such as for infrastructure or economic development) to locally designated compact growth areas.

These changes would mean that, for the first time, Ohio would know how it wants to develop and would have investments aligned with its goals. This would be a major step forward. To accomplish this, a mix of executive orders from the governor and legislation from the General Assembly would be required.

This agenda would meet current political requirements in Columbus:

  • It could be essentially revenue neutral so as to fit within state budget constraints. Aside from a small amount of planning funds, the program would focus on the reallocation of existing state spending to priority areas. In the long run, it could save taxpayers' money by focusing state investments where they will have the greatest return.
  • It would not be a new regulatory program. Instead it would use the power of state investment to encourage private development in desirable locations.
  • It would not interfere with home rule. Local governments would still make land use decisions. But they would have incentives to coordinate at the regional level.
  • It would not interfere with property rights. It would just shift public subsidies that make development more likely to occur in one location over another.

Given the differences between metro areas in the state, this kind of smart growth program should allow for regional flexibility. The state's role could be to facilitate regional problem solving. It could require each region to produce a plan to assure the long-term economic well-being of all jurisdictions within the region. Local communities would have to figure out how to do this. Then the state would support the plan with its investments.

As Ken Montlack, chair of the Northeast Ohio First Suburbs Consortium, says, "Winning would mean that state decisions are made with the sustainability of the urban core and open space in mind."

In addition to focusing on priorities for state investment, there might be a number of other reforms proposed. A recent advocacy position paper of First Suburbs calls for these additional policy changes:

  • A tax credit for the rehabilitation of homes more than 40 years old.
  • Tightening the criteria for Issue 2 infrastructure funding to require redevelopment of existing infrastructure.
  • Creating a statewide Housing Revitalization Linked Deposit Program modeled on the Cuyahoga County program that provides low-interest loans for home repair in First Suburbs.
  • Restoring municipal revenue lost from SB 108, which cut estate taxes.
  • Maintaining local government funds from the state.
    Changing the state's constitutional requirement that gas taxes go only for highways.
  • Removing loopholes in the Enterprise Zone program to restrict the zones to truly distressed urban areas.

A more detailed policy agenda for supporting First Suburbs and other older communities, "Valuing America's First Suburbs," has been proposed by the Brookings Institution's Center on Urban and Metropolitan Policy.32

Other specific policy changes could be evaluated for inclusion in a smart growth agenda, such as reform of ODOT funding policies (ODOT is an important target for reform because the transportation dollars it controls are often the biggest flow of capital coming into communities), updates of state enabling legislation for planning and land use regulation, annexation policies, and tax policies that influence the location of development. The state also could do more to promote better urban design by encouraging communities to adopt ordinances that allow "traditional neighborhood design," including mixed uses and walkable street environments (Wisconsin has required this). And the state could provide more support for regional planning, including data and information.

When thinking about all these policy options (and this is just a beginning list), it is important to realize that no single policy change will solve Ohio's complex land use and development problems. It will require a suite of policies and programs acting over many years. The task for smart growth advocates will be to figure out which options will be most effective and politically achievable.

The opposition to smart growth

The opposition to smart growth in Ohio is less of a movement than a collection of entrenched interests that want to maintain the status quo. To identify those interests, one just has to ask who might feel threatened if the location and form of development shifted in Ohio-such as real estate developers, home builders, farmers, highway contractors, and newly growing suburbs. These are powerful lobbies, but it is important to recognize that they are not monolithic. Each has members who are open to change. Here is an outreach strategy for each.

Developers: There are growing number of enlightened developers (such as members of the Urban Land Institute) who believe that suburbanization has run its course and the market has shifted to urban infill. These developers can be persuaded to be on the side of smart growth; if we can identify the right ones, they may even help lead the movement. Many developers, however, will never stop speculating on land at the edges of metro areas, hoping for sprawl to spread to the next interchange down the highway so they can build a new shopping mall. They need continued public subsidies to make their developments work. To keep those subsidies flowing, they are often big campaign contributors. We may not be able to change their practices or their political influence. On the positive side, there are not many of them and they have little grassroots support.

Home builders: As with developers, there are two types. On one hand, there are enlightened builders who see the market shifting and would like to do more work in the city if land were available. These can be our partners (such as leaders of the Northeast Ohio Home Builders, who are working with the City of Cleveland to remove barriers to home construction in the city). On the other hand, there are home builders who see smart growth as an attack on property rights-limiting their ability to build anything anywhere-and can't be persuaded otherwise. The state home builders association is often a hard-line spokesperson for this view. A smart growth campaign could find ways to respond to their concerns by emphasizing that smart growth is not about less work for home builders, only about helping them build in different locations.

Farmers: The real estate dynamics of Ohio make it hard to change the mind of the Farm Bureau. Ohio has many urbanized areas distributed around the state, and they are all sprawling out into the surrounding farmland. So practically every acre of Ohio is within the influence zone of some metro area-meaning that most farmers can have some expectation of selling land at development prices. And, given the state of family farming, this is a desirable retirement plan. Maybe the best we can hope for on this one is to emphasize that smart growth wouldn't prevent farmers from getting windfall profits (we're not talking about urban growth boundaries like Oregon); it would encourage redevelopment and thereby reduce the pressure to develop on farmland. The other strategy would be to work closely with the smaller farm organizations that are stronger advocates for family farming, organic farming, and the preservation of farmland. Given the importance of farming in the state's economy and the importance of prime farmland for world food production, there are powerful motivations to preserve Ohio's agricultural base.

Highway lobby: There is a powerful industry (indeed, a whole culture) that grew up with the Interstate highway system and lives off the steady flow of ODOT contracts. This includes contractors, cement and asphalt companies, construction unions, and engineering firms. The Ohio Contractors Association and the Ohio Construction Information Association are aggressive opponents of smart growth, environmental regulation, transit, and regional planning-anything that might question continual expansion of automobile-centric sprawl development. To counter the smart growth ideas, the OCIA has formed an Ohio Environment-Growth Alliance "to educate the public and officials regarding the truth about 'urban sprawl' and land use issues." Perhaps the best way to blunt the impact of this lobby is to make an effective case that smart growth would not mean the end of highway construction work. It would just mean more work repairing and rebuilding infrastructure in existing urban areas instead of new construction in the country.

Newly growing suburbs and townships: Smart growth will mean making different choices about where to support development, so it might mean that state transportation funds will go to rebuild a bridge in the city instead of to build a highway interchange that will facilitate a new industrial park for a growing suburb or township. These will be difficult choices. They will be easier to make if there is greater awareness of the importance of the urban core to the health of the entire region. They will also be easier to make if smart growth advocates can organize allies in rural areas who want their communities to remain rural.

In addition to these interests, there are at least four other obstacles to note:

Property rights advocates: One troublesome development on the Ohio political scene has been the emergence of the Buckeye Institute, a well-funded mouthpiece for property rights and free market ideology.33 Part of a national network of free market think tanks, the institute has issued studies that assert sprawl is not a problem in Ohio and that all development is simply the work of the free market. The institute's studies have just enough academic gloss to sound credible, and they are often provocative enough to get extensive media coverage (indeed, the media see them as "the other side" of the sprawl debate). It is extremely difficult to debate such ideologues on the facts, but smart growth advocates need to be much more aggressive about getting out the truth to the media (including the funding and motivations behind organizations like the Buckeye Institute).

One argument to make: smart growth policies will support the property rights and property values of most people (such as the typical homeowner in existing cities and towns).

The Ohio General Assembly: Members of the legislature are influenced heavily by the interests described above, which makes many members hostile to the ideas of smart growth. But there are also institutional problems that prevent the legislature from dealing with land use issues (or any other big issue) in a thoughtful manner. One problem is term limits, which creates a rapid turnover of the General Assembly and produces legislators more inclined to push a narrow ideology than grapple with complex, long-term issues. Another problem is the political fragmentation of Ohio. Representatives from different regions often perceive growth and development issues in different ways. Thus, the challenge for smart growth advocates is to have the capacity to develop a statewide identity for the issue and continually educate members of the legislature.

The state budget crisis: The recent budget crisis, along with the school finance case, has pushed most new initiatives off the table. Until conditions improve, smart growth advocates will have to work extra hard to explain why smart growth policies should be a state priority and how they can be accomplished without new spending.

Lack of a "crisis": Unfortunately, our political system seldom changes direction until there is a crisis. And, despite all the problems created by haphazard sprawl development, it's difficult for many people to perceive a crisis. Communities change gradually; the worst impacts may not be visible for many years. Smart growth advocates need to do a better job dramatizing the impacts. Without distorting the situation, they need to make the case that there is indeed a crisis. And they need to make the case with clear language that cuts through the complexity of land use and development issues.

The right leadership

To overcome all the obstacles described above, a statewide smart growth initiative will require excellent leadership. The right leadership is needed to serve two roles-establishing credibility and managing the work.

To achieve credibility, it will be important for leaders to come from diverse constituencies, not just from the "usual suspects" like environmental groups or academia. Business needs to be involved. Elected officials need to be involved. And it will be critical to have strong involvement from the Cincinnati area, so the effort cannot be marginalized as just a Northeast Ohio effort. The mayors of the Ohio First Suburbs can provide a good foundation of leadership.

To manage a statewide effort, it will be important to have a core group of leaders who can act decisively. One limitation of previous efforts in Ohio was that they were coalitions that took months to write a mission statement. A possible organizational structure might have a broad advisory committee with representatives from major constituencies and a much smaller steering committee of people dedicated to getting the job done. The steering committee would oversee a project (e.g., the Ohio Smart Growth Project) run through an existing nonprofit organization.

Allies to network

Henry Richmond, one of the founders of 1000 Friends of Oregon, is fond of saying that urban sprawl has a paradoxical silver lining. It negatively impacts so many people, so many constituencies, that a winning coalition is out there waiting to be organized.

In Ohio, the smart growth coalition could include:

  • Big citiesNow that the major cities have mayors who want to work together on an urban agenda, they can be a strong voice for new state policies.
  • Second-tier citiesThe smaller cities and older county seats of Ohio also suffer from outmigration and disinvestment.
  • First suburbsOlder, fully-developed suburbs have more in common with the central cities than with new suburbs.
  • BusinessBusiness leaders are realizing that vibrant urban neighborhoods and access to nature help attract educated workers.
  • Environmental and conservation groupsFrom the Sierra Club to the Nature Conservancy to Ducks Unlimited, these groups understand the environmental and habitat consequences of present development patterns.
  • Community development organizationsCDCs are beginning to understand how patterns of outmigration at the regional level drain people and resources from their neighborhoods.
  • Affordable housing groupsExclusionary zoning of most new suburbs prohibits affordable housing.
  • Faith-based groupsMany of these organizations have already begun working on regional development from a social justice perspective.
  • Labor unionsLabor organizations are realizing that sprawl does not meet the needs of many working families.
  • Historic preservationistsSprawl hurts historic neighborhoods and landscapes.
  • Civil rights advocatesSprawl is one of the major civil rights issues because it isolates minorities from opportunities in the larger society.
  • Transit and bicycle advocatesLow-density sprawl development makes it hard to offer transportation choices.
  • Planners/architectsThe major associations of planners and architects are supporting smart growth as a way to make better communities.
  • Public health professionalsAutomobile-oriented communities are now being seen as a health risk because they do not promote basic forms of exercise, like walking.
  • Good government groupsGroups, such as the League of Women Voters, have endorsed smart growth as more sustainable way to develop communities.
  • Urban anchorsInstitutions with fixed investments in the city-churches, schools, hospitals, arts organizations, banks, utilities.
  • NIMBYsThe many ad hoc groups fighting Wal-Marts, highway interchanges and road widenings in their communities.
  • Enlightened developersDevelopers who are tired of fighting anti-development NIMBYs and who would like to see a consensus on where development is appropriate.
  • Rural advocatesCountry residents who want their communities to remain rural.
  • Committed farmersFarmers who want to keep farming without the threat of encroaching subdivisions.
  • Everyone who can't driveChildren, senior citizens, and people who can't afford a car.

These are just a few of the constituencies who could be part of a smart growth coalition. The point is that a large number of constituencies have an interest in supporting smart growth-potentially a majority of the state. It will require a large organizing effort to get them all focused on a specific policy goal. But it will be possible.

Features of a winning campaign

The detailed design of a campaign should involve experienced people who have run statewide campaigns or who know the current politics of the General Assembly. But here are some suggestions for essential features:

  • Compelling case for changeDemonstrate clearly how current development trends are hurting most people and how the future of Ohio is at stake. Sprawl has to be understood as an underlying cause of many other problems. The case document should be polished, professional, and graphically compelling.
  • Positive agenda for a better futureWe need a message that diverse groups will rally around. The message has to be clear and simple. It has to cut through the complexities of land use issues and talk about tangible benefits.
  • Message based on basic valuesThe message should relate to people's basic values. Polling by the Biodiversity Project has shown such values to include choice, freedom, and responsibility to future generations.34 The message also should articulate how smart growth supports the property rights and property values of most landowners.
  • Building on Ohioans' concernsA statewide poll by the Ohio League of Conservation Voters in 2000 showed that 57 percent of likely voters say that "issues involving clean water, clean air and open space" are very important and a primary factor in deciding how to vote.
  • Business involvementBuild on the business community's new concerns about quality of life and the new economy.
  • Policy effectivenessMake sure that the policies advocated will actually work on the ground. Researchers at the urban universities and nonprofit centers like Policy Matters and the New Ohio Institute could help with the analysis.
  • Recognition of political realitiesThe agenda should be revenue neutral, incentive-based, and not create unfunded mandates for local governments.
  • Regional flexibilityGiven the diversity of Ohio's metropolitan areas, the agenda should focus on the state support of regional solutions. This not only makes political sense, but it is essential because the problems to be addressed play out at the regional scale.
  • Cincinnati focusPolitically, the Cincinnati area is key and must play a leading role.
  • BipartisanshipSmart growth should be positioned as a bipartisan (even nonpartisan) issue. It should transcend short-term politics.
  • TimingAssuming Governor Bob Taft will win a second term this November, he may be persuaded to exert more leadership on land use issues (an urban redevelopment and conservation legacy?). A smart growth campaign could be developed in 2003, emerge in 2004, and seek to win in 2005.
  • Federal hooksAdditional leverage can come from creative use of federal regulations for transportation, air, and water. Given sprawl's water quality impacts, more work can be done to link water quality and land use under the Clean Water Act. Ohio EPA's development of TMDLs (total maximum daily load allocations) for watersheds in the state can provide an opening.
  • MediaThe effort should have a strong media and communications strategy. It also should create its own electronic media.
  • TechnologyThe Internet provides tools that make it easier to network a large state. (Past efforts have broken down in part because of "I-71 fatigue," participants' tiring of the drive to Columbus for meetings.) In addition, the mailing list enhancement project of the League of Conservation Voters Education Fund now makes it possible to contact several hundred thousand conservation-minded voters.
  • Ability to count votesKnow what it will take to win and target resources accordingly to obtain the winning margin.
  • SeriousnessMaking significant headway on smart growth in Ohio will be hard work. The effort should not be attempted unless it's serious and has sufficient resources to get the job done.
  • Professional staffA serious effort will likely take three to four staff people working for at least three years.

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Cuyahoga Bioregion
(216) 961-5020
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Copyright 2002-2003

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