"I'm from the Government, and I'm here to help you"

Local officials are rightfully leery of someone who shows up at their doorstep and proclaims, "I'm from the U.S. Government ... and I'm here to help you." That probably goes double for the Environmental Protection Agency. But when a team arrives from the EPA’s Smart Growth office, rather than scrambling to bar the door, local officials greet them with open arms — because they really do provide essential assistance.

5 minute read

June 20, 2007, 12:59 PM PDT

By Anonymous

Local officials are rightfully leery of someone who shows up at their doorstep and proclaims, "I'm from the U.S. Government ... and I'm here to help you." That probably goes double for the Environmental Protection Agency. But when a team arrives from the EPA's Smart Growth office, rather than scrambling to bar the door, local officials greet them with open arms - because they really do provide essential assistance.

Since it began more than ten years ago, EPA's Smart Growth program has advised communities across the country, helping them create and implement plans to embrace growth in a smart and sustainable way. Unlike regulatory programs, the EPA Smart Growth office comes only when invited to share the growing expertise on how to make smarter growth a reality. The program and its high-caliber staff provide a valuable, voluntary service in an age of increasing development challenges across the country.

Alan Greenblatt summed up what separates this program from so many others in April's issue of Governing Magazine: (scroll down) "In contrast to many EPA programs, which concern themselves with regulatory fiats, the smart growth office acts in an advisory role, conducting research, handing out grants, and collating and presenting information to local officials making land-use decisions. The program is popular just about everywhere."

So it may also be surprising that such a popular program would be facing budget cuts from Congress and the Bush administration. With only $3 million in its budget when fully funded, the Smart Growth office is the Little Engine that Could of federal programs. The already-small budget has been proposed for a cut of roughly a third, removing 4 full-time staffers - a priceless loss of practical experience and knowledge - and more than $500,000 in other funding. The $3 million budget is a drop in the bucket compared to the monetary impact and return felt in the communities that have benefited.

The return on investment, as they might say, is high.

The program has helped countless communities strengthen their economies, protect their environment, and improve public health. In the last ten years, the Smart Growth office has directly assisted 170 communities through grants, site visits, and technical assistance. No doubt many Interchange readers were present at this year's New Partners for Smart Growth Conference in Los Angeles last February, which was co-sponsored by the EPA. And most of you have certainly come across one of the many publications they have helped to produce, like This is Smart Growth, Getting to Smart Growth, or the Smart Growth Shareware that was produced along with Smart Growth America.

Cheyenne, Wyoming was one of the communities that EPA visited in 2006 to provide technical assistance for their long-range planning process. EPA traveled to Cheyenne to work with locals - officials and citizens - to craft their innovative long-range plan. Earlier this year, PlanCheyenne was recognized by the American Planning Association with the Burnham Award for comprehensive planning. According to the City's planning director in the Governing Magazine piece, EPA helped "bring in a fresh perspective," but in a way that was still specifically tailored for their city.

He is not alone in his praise for the program. Rick Cole, city manager in Ventura, California told Governing, "in every community, what EPA has done is not only offer best practices, but also given very practical advice about how to implement them."

In McCall, Idaho, the city was concerned about poorly planned sprawling development springing up along a new east-west corridor, so they applied for assistance from EPA. According to the EPA's project summary, they "assembled a team to work with city officials, local leaders, community representatives, and others to create a vision for the development at two sites along the road. As part of those meetings and consultations, the team prepared concept plans illustrating approaches that would help produce the results that McCall is seeking near the Loop Road. Community leaders decided to adopt designs from this workshop in their comprehensive plan."

The assistance from the EPA was incorporated into the shared community vision for the City, with the locals taking ownership of the plans they had worked to create with the feds. Kirk Eimers, the Mayor of McCall said the EPA "provided us with much needed technical assistance and the vocabulary that the community is now using to articulate its vision for the future."

Even Newt Gingrich has indirectly praised the program. In his "debate" with John Kerry on global warming, he cited Atlanta's Atlantic Station, the redevelopment of a toxic industrial site as vibrant city district, as emblematic of a new approach to achieving environmental goals. That project would not have happened without the flexibility and innovative approaches created by the smart growth program.

It has been threatened several times before, but unlikely bedfellows have rallied together to ensure its survival. Environmentalists, planners, private-sector developers, home builders, and Realtors have supported the program, realizing that crafting a sensible plan for growth allows for much more predictability than citizens fighting each individual development piecemeal, armed only with fears of "what they don't want," rather than a shared vision of how to embrace smarter growth for the good of their communities. Kent Jeffreys of the International Council of Shopping Centers told Governing Magazine, "I just find it hard to believe that such a good program was really targeted for budget cuts or elimination."

The federal budget is currently moving through subcommittees and into the Appropriations Committee this week. If you want to express your support for this program, you can contact your Senator and tell them to urge Senate leadership to fully fund the program.

As we seek to create walkable places where we can meet our daily needs without excessive commutes in the car, meeting President Bush's goals of reducing dependence on foreign oil and slashing greenhouse gases, the EPA is helping counties, towns and cities across the country work with their residents to create such places.

On the web:
• April's issue of Governing Magazine
• EPA's Smart Growth Program

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