PA Needs Legally-Binding Comprehensive Plans

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What should really goose the Friday afternoon dip in blog traffic is a tirade on the state Municipal Planning Code, so here goes:

Many municipalities have wisely recognized that when each local government draws up a zoning plan only for its own territory, that’s a recipe for total chaos at the regional level. Many counties have dozens of municipalities, so when each one draws up its own zoning code without considering what its neighbors are doing (or worse, actively competing with its neighbors for housing and retail) the effect is to supercharge land-hungry sprawl.

Some of the more forward-thinking municipalities have tried to remedy this by banding together with their neighbors to draft comprehensive regional plans, in an attempt to bring some order to development. The plans lay out where new residential and commercial development is allowed, and what areas should stay open space, across the whole group of municipalities.

The trouble is, there’s no easy way to legally enforce these regional planning agreements, since the state Municipal Planning Code specifically makes these documents advisory only, rather than legally binding on municipalities and developers.

This is a problem, since it’s difficult to make these agreements stick. One reason is that each municipality is still competing for tax base with all the others, so there’s pressure to violate the agreement when non-complying opportunities arise:

Officials from six southwestern Lehigh County municipalities grappled with a time-honored problem of how to give teeth to any updates to the Southwestern Lehigh County Comprehensive Plan they would draft, during a meeting Wednesday night at the Upper Milford Township Municipal Building. The plan, which was adopted in 2005, addressed ways to control development and preserve open space. Officials said the plan was intended to serve as the basis for future zoning and implement smart growth. In reality, it hasn’t been that way.

The boroughs of Alburtis, Emmaus and Macungie and the townships of Upper Milford, Lower Milford and Lower Macungie were represented during the two-hour meeting and after much discussion agreed to do some homework […]

Withdrawing will not solve anything, but the plan is useless if the members do not comply,” was the consensus of the responses, according to Upper Milford Township officials.

This was the problem with the Buncher riverfront development controversy in Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh has a very good comprehensive plan for the Allegheny riverfront, which was developed through an exhaustive collaborative community outreach process. But when Buncher proposed a development for the riverfront that was substantially dissimilar to the community’s vision (“crappy strip mall” as Patrick Dowd put it) the majority of City Council members folded like a cheap suit at the first plan put in front of them. They could have driven a harder bargain, sure, but what really would’ve been useful is if that Allegheny riverfront comprehensive plan’s zoning prescriptions had been legally binding on politicians and Buncher.

Unfortunately the solution to this problem is for state-level politicians to change the Municipal Planning Code to add real teeth to comprehensive plans – unfortunate because more people need to be persuaded than at the city or County level – but that’s why I’m blogging about it right here on this statewide politics blog.

*Update: The point about Buncher is a totally separate issue. I don’t know why I conflated the two. I think I shouldn’t be allowed to blog after 3:30 or so on Fridays.

This entry was posted in Miscellany.

3 Responses to PA Needs Legally-Binding Comprehensive Plans

  1. Shawn Carter says:

    Conflating Buncher with binding regionalism is a mistake.

    The SOLE reason that the Allegheny Riverfront Plan wasn’t binding on either the municipality or the developer is simple:

    No one. Not the City’s Planning Commission. Not the City Council. Bothered to “adopt” said plan by law.

    It would have been a simple measure. “Resolution adopting the ____________ as the official land-use plan for the ____________________.”

    That singular move would’ve given the Buncher Plan’s opponents greater standing and leverage.

    And had the proponents of the ARFV moved on that in, say, 2010, or 2011, they would have succeeded.

    That’s not to say that I disagree with the concept of binding regionalism, but I think you have to be careful when you try applying that model to Pittsburgh(Allegheny County) and Philadelphia City/County.

    The major urban centers don’t often fare well from binding regionalism.

  2. Shawn Carter says:

    The other issue with binding regionalism…

    The transportation and transit dollars allocated to the ten-county region we here in SWPA are in are then allocated precisely by a process of binding regionalism.

    Pittsburgh (5 votes) and Allegheny County (5 votes) are worth 10 votes, combined. Each of the other 9 counties gets 5 votes a piece.

    The region outvotes us. And the decisions ARE binding. Sprawl is often the result.

    I’m a big fan of regionalism. But it is important to understand how it works in practice as opposed to merely in theory.

    • Jon says:

      That makes a lot of sense Shawn, thanks. It’s the same with SEPTA – Philly’s outvoted by the rest of SEPA. I’ll do a rethink post sometime this weekend or Monday engaging with your criticism.