Background on Growing Smart

A Q&A with Stuart Meck, FAICP, General Editor of Growing Smart

Q: Why did APA undertake the Growing Smart project?

A: Our tools are outdated for the times we live in. We need better statutory models that meet contemporary needs. Most planning statutes in the United States descend from two model acts drafted by an advisory committee of the U.S. Department of Commerce in the 1920s, under Commerce Secretary (and later President) Herbert Hoover. In the 1920s, government was simpler and planning was a local activity, not something that was expected of all levels of government. Now the intergovernmental dimension is more complex.

In some communities and regions since the 1970s, high rates of growth have prompted concern over cost of services, adverse impacts on the environment and quality of life, and the balance between jobs and housing. A number of states recognized these concerns and state legislatures responded. Some states now take an active role in managing this intergovernmental dimension to ensure uniformity, fairness, and the advancement of state interests.

At the end of the 20th century, we also have a different view of land. People no longer believe, as they did in the 19th century, that land is merely a commodity to be bought and sold. We now also regard land as resource. Where we once encouraged the filling in and development of swamps, we now regard those same wetlands to be a vital part of nature's system of flood control and important for wildlife and their habitats. Land has qualities that should be protected for the benefit of future generations. We see vacant, developable land as having competing social values — it can be used for the construction of affordable housing or for the continuation of agriculture.

People expect more of planning now. In the 1920s, community plans tended to be prepared by consultants working for elite groups who sought little broad-based public support or involvement. What opportunities there were for citizen participation were rudimentary — a single public hearing after the major planning decisions had already been made. As a consequence, such plans were not often implemented. Although many planning statutes are silent on the tools and techniques of participation, citizens now expect to be engaged in community planning processes, and, when they participate, they expect to see results.

There is also a more challenging legal environment for planning. Land-use controls are being employed to solve or prevent environmental problems, maintain open space, exact public improvements for schools and roads, and preserve agricultural land. The line between protecting the public from nuisances — the focus of the 1920s — and securing public benefits has blurred over the past 80 years. In response, courts have begun to require government to compensate land owners for regulations that result in either a permanent or temporary taking of private property, that go "too far" in pushing the envelope in protecting the public health, safety, and welfare. Thus, the planning basis for our development decisions becomes even more significant.

Q: Can states undertake reform by themselves?

A: It is hard to undertake statutory reform without understanding what has been tried and what works. When states decide to evaluate their planning statutes, they find that the process is complex, time-consuming, and expensive. Often they can only focus on two or three states for comparison. The information they need to undertake the evaluation is hard to assemble.

Q: Who is the audience for Growing Smart?

A: The main audience is officials in the executive and legislative branches of state government — the governor and his or her staff, state legislators, state legislative researcher, staff of key legislative committees, state planning offices, departments of community affairs, and other state offices with missions related to housing, land use, economic development, transportation, community revitalization, and the environment. The audience also includes public officials at the local and regional levels — in cities, towns, counties, and regional agencies such as councils of government and regional planning commissions. In addition the project hopes to reach those who are affected by planning decisions and who have an interest in how the statutes are revised — local planners, builders, developers, real estate and design professionals, smart growth and affordable housing advocates, environmentalists, highway and transit specialists, and citizens.

Q: Where did the idea for Growing Smart originate?

A: The idea originated from two sources at about the same time. The concept of a new generation of model planning and zoning enabling legislation was originally a recommendation by the Advisory Commission on Regulatory Barriers to Affordable Housing, which was created during the administration of President George Bush and Secretary Jack Kemp at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The commission, in its 1991 report, "Not in My Back Yard": Removing Barriers to Affordable Housing, recommended that HUD assume a leadership role and work with government and private-industry groups, such as the American Bar Association, the American Planning Association, National Association of Home Builders, National Governors' Association, League of Cities, State community affairs agencies, and others to develop consensus-based model codes and statutes for use by State and local governments. Specifically, the Commission sees a need for a new model State zoning enabling act with a fair-share component, model impact-fee standards, and a model land-development and subdivision-control ordinance.

All of the recommendations in the commission's report were included in the Growing Smart Legislative Guidebook, including state and local barrier removal plans, state zoning reform, conflict resolution or mediation, streamlining state regulatory responsibility, time limits on processing and approvals, and state impact fee standards.

Also in 1991 APA's Chapter Presidents Council asked the APA Board of Directors to direct the Research Department to investigate the development of new model planning and zoning enabling legislation to replace the two model acts from the 1920s. The council believed that APA should provide leadership in the reform of the nation's planning statutes to meet the needs of the next century. APA created a task force to develop an approach to draft the model legislation. The task force of planners and attorneys met in Chicago in March 1991. The report of that task force ultimately led to the submission of a proposal to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Henry M. Jackson Foundation in 1993, and funding of the proposal in 1994.

Q: How long did Growing Smart take?

A: Seven years. The project began in October 1994 and concluded in November 2001.

Q: Must every state use the same model statutes?

A: No. If one thing is clear, there is no "one-size-fits-all" with respect to planning statutes. As APA began this research, it quickly became apparent that states were increasingly shaping their legislation to address problems that were unique to their political, social, economic and environmental circumstances. Consequently, the models in the Guidebook are drafted to give users alternative approaches, insofar as possible. The Guidebook does not make specific recommendations for each state. States can pick and choose from the proposals for enabling legislation in the Guidebook. The Guidebook is reference book, not a policy prescription. Because it is a compendium of options, with commentary, it cannot be "adopted." Further, because enabling legislation "enables," local governments can decide themselves whether or not they wish to use certain powers granted to them.

Q: Does the Legislative Guidebook call for federal legislation to preempt states and local governments?

A: No, the Guidebook does not contain proposals for federal legislation at all. It does, however, recognize the impact that federal legislation has on planning, especially in the areas of transportation and the environment.

Q: Who is using the Legislative Guidebook?

A: Because the Guidebook was issued in two interim editions, one in 1996 and the other in 1998, some 13 states have incorporated language from these earlier editions into laws and bills. For example, planning legislation adopted by the states of Arizona, Tennessee, and Wisconsin in 1998 drew heavily on concepts and statutory provisions in the Guidebook. Other states, like Illinois, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, and Hawaii, have considered bills that expressly adapted Guidebook language.

Q: How did APA get input on the project?

A: In early 1995, APA announced the project by mailing a cover letter, a four-page project summary, and an "Invitation for Involvement" questionnaire to the CEOs of 161 national and regional interest groups. From 1995 to the present, APA has conducted a very robust outreach program, including many presentations to national interest groups and state legislative study committees. APA also mailed a semi-annual project newsletter to a list of over 800 and maintained a heavily visited project website. It included progress reports on Growing Smart in Planning Research Highlights, a newsletter of APA's Research Department that summarizes the status of all our sponsored projects. APA also kept track of requests for information on planning statute reform.

In the last phase of the project, more than 330 pages of comments were received from environmental groups, smart growth advocates, and organizations representing builders and developers. The project team carefully considered each comment and responded in a series of detailed memos. By APA's estimate, over 85 percent of the suggestions made in these comment letters were accommodated in the Guidebook. These comments were in addition to suggestions made by the Directorate, the official project advisory committee.

Q: Are the Guidebook and User Manual policies of APA?

A: No. The APA Board of Directors has stated that the Guidebook and User Manual are research products and do not necessarily represent the policy of APA, unless specifically identified as such in a policy guide or other board action.