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Smart Growth: What is it and how do we get it?

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Posted On: August 7, 2019

As an abstract concept, most people concur that smart growth – the kind of balanced growth that stimulates the economy, protects the environment and provides for social equality – is desirable. Reaching agreement, however, on what smart growth is, what it looks like, where it should go and the best way to get it becomes a prickly pursuit. Brimming with both challenge and opportunity, that’s the task facing local leaders. And nothing short of Volusia County’s future is at stake.

Smart growth “has to be our number one priority,” Volusia County Council member Billie Wheeler recently told her council colleagues. Reconciling the strong sentiments, differing opinions and competing interests that characterize the development debate, though, will be a tough nut to crack, acknowledged County Council member Ben Johnson.

“But it has to be dealt with,” he added during one of the council’s recent discussions about the topic.

So why all this focus on smart growth? The observations of a multi-agency planning commission regarding the positive and negative impacts of growth provide some useful insight.

“Fortunately or unfortunately, growth has come to Volusia County. In more recent years, the pace of growth has accelerated and will probably continue to accelerate in the future,” the commission concluded in its report, titled How Should We Grow. “As more and more people arrive, opportunities for economic gain will multiply – but so will such problems as water pollution and traffic congestion.”

The insights about the dual nature of growth and the need to manage and plan for it in an orderly and thoughtful way could well have been written last year or last month or just last week. But they weren’t. These were the findings of a report authored in 1967 by the now defunct Volusia Area Planning Commission. And in some ways, not much has changed since the ink dried on that growth report some 52 years ago.

“It’s still relevant today,” Clay Ervin, the county’s director of growth and resource management, said of the How Should We Grow report. “A lot of the things we’re talking about now were being discussed back in 1967.”

Yet despite all that talk, defining smart growth is still a difficult chore. A major reason is because it’s one of those theoretical ideas that mean different things to different people. To some, it’s about relaxing and streamlining development regulations that can sometimes stifle growth. To others, it’s about slowing growth, or even stopping it if that was even possible.

Rather than smart growth, Volusia County Council member Deb Denys prefers to call it “meaningful growth.” And here’s how a former Volusia County Council member put it many years ago: “We need to make quality development very easy, and we need to make the type of development we don’t want to have very difficult.”

To others, it’s all about protecting the environment. To be sure, building in a way that minimizes environmental harm is a central tenet. But smart growth is a whole lot more. At its core, smart growth is a set of principles for managing growth. It encourages the use of governmental planning tools such as zoning ordinances, comprehensive plans, environmental standards and development regulations to manage and guide growth in a way that promotes healthy communities without clogging roads, polluting the environment, paving over green spaces and degrading services. Smart growth strategies help residents develop a shared vision for the future and a roadmap for how to get there. The goals of these plans typically include such things as preserving environmental cores, green spaces and rural zones, encouraging compact development that clusters around existing services to prevent urban sprawl, and ensuring that essential facilities such as roads, schools and parks are adequate to serve a growing population.

Ervin sums up growth management in a single word – balance. It’s about utilizing rules and regulations to maintain a healthy balance among new growth, financial stability and quality of life. Because if one of the three is out of balance, the others will suffer.

“You have to balance economic growth, social growth and protection of the natural resources,” said Ervin. “In all reality, this is all just an attempt to provide for balance.”

The one-word description notwithstanding, there’s nothing simple about growth management. The 1967 report proposed dividing Volusia’s land uses into three categories – urban, conservation and agriculture. And it encouraged the conservation of natural resources and the preservation of scenic areas, historic sites and open areas. It also promoted compact development and infill development over dispersed development to take advantage of existing infrastructure such as roads and utilities.

“This form of development results in greater efficiencies in providing services and facilities,” the report concluded. “People are closer to the things they need or want to do, travel distances are shorter and some facilities can be reached on foot.”

At the time the report was authored, Volusia’s population was about 174,000. With the county’s population now approaching 550,000, many consider the goals of the 1967 growth plan to be just as relevant and applicable today.

Volusia County Government adopted its first set of subdivision regulations in 1972, its first unified zoning ordinance in 1980, and its first state-mandated comprehensive plan in 1990. By 2003, the County Council was talking about the need to enact smart growth principles. That led to a series of smart growth community summits and the establishment of a Smart Growth Implementation Committee that thrashed out a wide-ranging series of recommendations that were contained in a 45-page report presented to the County Council in September 2005. The report identifies the heart of the matter in its first two sentences: “Volusia County is facing a challenge and an opportunity that will determine its future. That challenge is growth.”

The 2005 growth report, much like the 1967 version, recommended philosophies such as compact cluster development, strict environmental protections, preservation of green space, and ensuring the availability and efficient, orderly delivery of critical services such as water, sewer and schools. Sounding like that former elected official, the report notes that a key element of smart growth is “ensuring that new development occurs where it is appropriate and does not occur where it would be inappropriate.” Among the places the committee wanted to ensure remained on the “inappropriate” list were environmentally sensitive lands, including wetlands, open space, wildlife corridors, agricultural property and the east-west spine that runs down the middle of the county and contains its all-important water recharge area.

One of the chief accomplishments of the 2005 growth plan was the adoption of an environmental core overlay map that later got written into the county’s comprehensive plan to add an additional layer of eco-friendly protections. To make it official policy, a list of smart growth objectives was written into the county comprehensive plan as well.

Over the next few years, the county set out to adopt as many of the report’s recommendations as feasible. But outside forces, the Great Recession of 2007-09, devastated the economy. The building industry was hit particularly hard. The state eventually reacted by relaxing some of the laws and tools that local governments used to manage growth. It’s what Ervin refers to as “chasing the market.” During financial booms, development prospers, residents start feeling the negative impacts like traffic congestion, and government responds by initiating growth control measures. Then, when the economy hits the skids, people want growth controls lifted in the hopes of stimulating new development and reviving the economy.

Far better, in Ervin’s estimation, to find that regulatory middle ground, or sweet spot where the rules aren’t changing all the time with each economic peak and valley. That way, the rules would be more consistent and predictable for all concerned.

“I think what we need to do from now on is really focus on what we can do to cut through the middle – to maintain that standard so we’re not reactionary during the process of market adjustments,” said Ervin.

After the recession, once the economy began to rebound and building activity started to pick up again, concerns about the impacts of growth spurred the County Council to take another look. And that prompted the establishment of a committee that met nearly 25 times between 2013 and 2016 to once again review smart growth principles, development standards and environmental codes to see what needed to be changed and updated – essentially another look at “how should we grow” in Volusia County. For instance, the county is continuing to work on updates to its Land Development Code based on recommendations from the Smart Growth Policy Review Committee. And in March of this year, while meeting in a goal-setting session, the County Council once again identified smart growth as a critically important issue that needs some serious consideration.

While it’s still a work in progress, one thing has come through loud and clear with every commission, study, report and blue ribbon panel: To prevent a hodge-podge of conflicting and ineffective growth standards, the county and Volusia’s 16 municipalities must work together and coordinate their planning efforts. That’s where the Roundtable of Volusia County Elected Officials comes in. Composed of one elected official from each of Volusia’s cities, county government and the school system, the Roundtable has now turned its attention to smart growth. And perhaps part of the impetus was voter rejection in March of a half-cent, local-option sales tax to finance transportation and water projects. Despite the measure going down by a 55% to 45% margin, few voters argued with the need for the infrastructure improvements. But among the reasons cited by sales tax opponents was their belief that the cities and county must do a better job of managing growth and preventing sprawl. The Roundtable has gotten the message and is working in unison to breathe new life into smart growth efforts.

At the Roundtable’s request, the County is expected to coordinate the new effort by meeting with city planners to review all the local governments’ codes and ordinances to make them more uniform and cohesive. It’s an important next step given that the cities are bigger players in the growth discussion than ever before. In 1990, the cities encompassed about 108,000 acres of Volusia County. Due to aggressive municipal expansion and annexation movements, the city acreage in Volusia County has since doubled, to around 213,000 acres. And that’s where much of the future growth will be taking place. Eventually, the group plans to bring in other interested parties, such as environmentalists, builders, development attorneys and citizen groups to seek areas of compromise – to make sure all voices are heard, everyone’s property rights are protected and to seek the balance Ervin talks about. So far, the agencies are all in.

“I think the more we can work together on this, the better,” New Smyrna Beach Mayor Russ Owen said at a recent meeting of the Roundtable.

In addition, the Roundtable wants to hear from those who were in the forefront of the local smart growth movement to make sure the group remains as faithful as possible to that original vision. They’ve already heard from one of the smart growth architects, local land-use attorney Glenn Storch. His message: growth is coming whether we want it or not. So let’s coordinate and plan for it and make sure it’s good growth – smart growth that stimulates the local economy without degrading the quality of life in Volusia County.

“If we don’t grow properly, that growth will go somewhere,” said Storch, who served on both Volusia’s 2004-05 Smart Growth Implementation Committee and the Smart Growth Policy Review Committee nearly a decade later. “It will grow around us, and we’ll have all of the impacts – the negative impacts of growth – with none of the positive impacts.”

Smart growth, according to Storch, is just plain smart. “We can encourage smart growth,” Storch told the Roundtable. “We can encourage the right kind of growth. But we have to work together on that.”

And that’s both the challenge and the opportunity.