The Patrick administration has done away with yet another program that encourages smart growth in Massachusetts. At least when it comes to growth and development and sustainability, the Tea Party may have found a new champion.
The program is Commonwealth Capital, and like the other major components of the state's smart growth agenda, it started under Deval Patrick's predecessor, Mitt Romney. Commonwealth Capital asked cities and towns to fill out a scorecard that reported what they were doing at the local level to foster smart growth — that is, less sprawl, and more mixed-use, walkable, downtown-centered, transit-oriented growth. The communities got credit for green building, saving energy, preserving open space, and zoning reform, among many other categories. Those that scored highest went to the front of the line to receive about $500 million per year in grants and revolving loan funds for infrastructure including water and sewer projects. The idea was to put state funding to municipalities through a filter, and reward innovation in sustainability at the local level; previously the money was just doled out.
Now it's back to going to those places with political connections and the smarts to work the bureaucracy — and to those towns that are building subdivisions out in the cornfields. Commonwealth Capital didn't cost much to run. The respected planner who was primarily responsible for it, a Romney holdover, was let go, told that he didn't fit in with the administration's priorities. But Romney's smart growth initiatives have never sat well with Patrick. The first thing the Democratic governor did was eliminate Romney's Office for Commonwealth Development, which banded together the state agencies that have anything to do with growth and development — transportation, environment, housing, and energy. Ironically, since that time, other states have actually embraced that very model of coordination.
About the only thing left is Chapter 40R and 40S, which gives money to communities that fast-track dense, mixed-use development in town centers and downtowns, near transit, or on vacant industrial sites. But even that seems to be dying on the vine, with continuing uncertainties about funding. Few towns are taking it very seriously these days, because they don't think they'll get the money — up to $600,000 depending on the size of the project, plus additional funding for the local schools to accomodate any children moving in.
Controlling sprawl in Massachusetts began under Mike Dukakis and continued under Bill Weld, Paul Cellucci, and Jane Swift, but it was Romney who was an avowed champion of smart growth. In this respect Romney was a big environmentalist. He was for RGGI (the Northeast regional greenhouse gas emissions compact) before he was against it. Of course, Romney doesn't talk about smart growth much these days. The Republican primaries are fueled by those who deny global warming and are against regulations. Tea Party representatives have lately been characterizing smart growth and planning initiatives as part of a United Nations conspiracy referred to as Agenda 21, particularly in California, where there are still those audacious enough to think there might be more environmentally sensible ways to live other than 90-minute solo commutes in SUVs from subdivisions out in the Central Valley.
What a house of mirrors. The Massachusetts Republican believed in smart growth but doesn't say so; the Massachusetts Democrat claims to be an environmentalist but is dismantling anti-sprawl initiatives. It's enough to make you want a Commonwealth Capital scorecard, to keep it all straight.
Anthony Flint is a fellow at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, a think tank in Cambridge. Follow him on Twitter at @landpolicy and @anthonyflint.