The Value of Comprehensive Planning in Pennsylvania

The Value of Comprehensive Planning in Pennsylvania

Union County, Pa. The first County in the United States to be designated a Green Community by EPA in 1997. (I’m the guy holding the sign)

by Fred Wilder on Friday, November 25, 2011 at 7:36pm

Successful people and successful organizations set goals and make plans to achieve them. A Comprehensive Plan is focused on the future, encouraging people to think about what kind of community we really want and attempting to define a shared vision in terms of goals and objectives. We know tomorrow will be dramatically different from today. The question is: Will it be better? A well crafted, publicly supported planning document can help assure that it is.We like to think of our community as a place of scenic beauty. We visualize the charm of our small cities, towns and villages, the lovely farmland of the countryside, the placid beauty of our waterways or the wonders of nature our parks and forests.

But have we really looked around us lately. In a growing number of places Pennsylvania is being transformed.  The long term impacts of unplanned and unregulated transformation is a legacy the Commonwealth knows all to well, our history is ripe with environmental disasters, economic booms and busts, rapid loss of farmland, incredible urban sprawl not at all related to population growth.  We see this transformation every day, whether in the building of the new, the destruction of the old, or the abandonment of the economically unusable, yet communities still fail to understand that these negative impacts can be mitigated, but first there has to be an understanding that they will occur.

Planning may seem to be a boring, bureaucratic topic, but in many ways it is the linchpin of our community. Planning shapes the rules and regulations under which development occurs. A comprehensive planning process has enormous potential to preserve, protect and vastly improve our communities.  Sustainable economic growth is best encouraged by designating areas where development serves the public good and where it does not. Flexible regulations and streamlined permitting processes should be established to encourage development in proper areas.

These “designated growth” areas should be large enough to accommodate all predicted commercial, residential and industrial development for the next thirty years, with a safety margin of 50 percent. Proposed development within these designated growth areas should be encouraged by a swift review and approval process. Development outside these boundaries, except for low density housing, rural commercial or industrial development, agriculture and forestry,should be reviewed by the appropriate municipal, county and regional agencies for the appropriateness of the proposed use for the neighborhood.We have the opportunity to plan for a new sense of community, of a more mixed and multiple use pattern of development in response to new conditions.

A good plan promotes lofty goals, high objectives and specific policy recommendations to achieve a shared community vision of what we want our locality to be. People fundamentally want places which are humane and livable, a shared sense of community, and a sense of stewardship of the land. 

A new vision for a community emerges in this planning document, a process that utilizes the techniques of consensus building at the grassroots level, one that redefines our community, using the best of the past and the technological and ecological advances of the present to create a more positive and secure future for everyone. The residents of Pennsylvania’s cities,towns and villages must activate this new vision. Remember that almost everything that is built is approved under some kind of regulation. Participation in the process, establishing a shared vision, and actually implementing the plan can activate this common vision of our community.

Environmental Stewardship vs. Private Property Rights

Almost fifty years ago, Pennsylvania voters ratified a measure that added Article I,Section 27 to the State Constitution of 1968.  The constitutional amendment states that:

The people have a right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic,      historic and aesthetic values of the environment.Pennsylvania’s public natural resources are the common property of all the people, including generations yet to come. As trustees of these resources the Commonwealth shall conserve and maintain them for the benefit of all the people.

The Municipalities Planning Code has been amended several times to enhance and encourage local governments to address valuable natural and cultural resources such as agricultural lands, wetlands,floodplains, historic and water supply resources.  Regarding land use and its impact on the environment, The Atlas of Pennsylvania notes that:

Many activities–industrial, commercial, housing development, mineral extraction, farming, forestry, or waste disposal–are bound to affect the environment… Pennsylvania’s environmental programs and laws, including local land development ordinances, promote the recognition and the mitigation or avoidance of environmental effects. In fact, the Commonwealth’s ability to encourage environmental stewardship is quite broad, at both the state and the local levels.

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