Creating Rural ‘Smart Growth’

Following "smart growth" practices can help rural towns thrive, according to a report from the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

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What does “smart growth” mean to rural communities?

The federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently released a report titled “Putting Smart Growth to Work in Rural Communities.” It was written by EPA staffers and people with the International City/County Management Association. And it was meant to give smaller communities an idea of how smart growth principles can work in their towns and counties.

You can find a full copy of the report here

The report is aimed at all rural places, whether they are growing or shrinking. Most of the report consists of concrete suggestions. The recommendations are gathered under three goals. 

1. Support the rural landscape by creating an economic climate that enhances the viability of working lands and conserves natural lands;

2. Help existing places thrive by taking care of assets and investments such as downtowns, Main Streets, existing infrastructure, and places that the community values; and

3. Create great new places by building vibrant, enduring neighborhoods and communities that people, especially young people, don’t want to leave.

We’ve pulled some of the recommendations listed under each goal. We’ll begin with excerpts from the report with the first goal.

Goal One: Support the Rural Landscape

Use value taxation — Use value taxation (often called current use value taxation or preferential assessment) is a voluntary approach that allows land to be assessed at its current use value (as agriculture or forest land, for instance), rather than at its highest market value, which may include the value of the land based on its current use plus the underlying development rights that have not been exercised by the property owner.

Tax credits for conservation — Tax incentives for donating conservation easements can motivate a landowner to remain on the land. Federal, state, and local governments can grant tax credits for land donation or conservation easements.

Right to farm policies — Nuisance lawsuits, based on complaints from neighbors or strict local policies, seek to curtail normal farming activities. Right to farm ordinances and laws protect farmers, ranchers, and foresters by preventing these lawsuits from succeeding in court.

Purchase of development rights — Purchase of development rights (PDR) is a voluntary program in which a land trust or other agency buys the development rights to a parcel from the landowner. The landowner is free to turn down the offer or try to negotiate a higher price. Once an agreement is made, a permanent deed restriction is placed on the property restricting the type of activities that may take place on the land in perpetuity.

Government purchase of local products — Increasingly, state and local governments are contracting with regional farmers to supply food for public institutions such as schools, prisons, and government offices.

“Buy local” campaigns — Many local and state governments assist their agricultural regions by holding annual festivals and helping to promote their products as a unified brand. “Buy local” campaigns, ranging from “Alaska Grown” to “Something Special From Wisconsin” to “Fresh From Florida,” increase the share of the market dedicated to local products and remind consumers of the value of rural lands.

EPA
Senaca Falls, New York, has created a vibrant, economically healthy downtown.

Priority funding areas — Priority funding areas (PFAs) identify geographic areas that qualify for financial or other assistance, such as infrastructure or accelerated project approval. Typically designated at the state level and supported by local decisions, PFAs create incentives for development to take place in particular areas, including those where infrastructure exists already, while removing incentives for growth pressure in undeveloped areas.

Agricultural, ranching, or forestry zoning — In agricultural, ranching, or forestry zoning, primary industry uses are allowed, but other uses, including residential development, are prohibited or very restricted. This type of rural land zoning has been applied to millions of acres of farm, ranching, and forest lands across the country.

Rural home clustering — While at times controversial, cluster development can be an alternative to large lot, dispersed subdivision development. The basic premise is that a developer can build the same number of units on smaller lots (or more units if there is a density-bonus system) while preserving a percentage of the developable land for agriculture or as natural land.

Goal Two: Help Existing Places Thrive

Fix-it-first —Communities can employ a “fix-it-first” approach to infrastructure spending in order to help existing places thrive. A fix-it-first approach means that communities will prioritize public funding to repair, restore, and conduct preventive maintenance on existing infrastructure, including buildings, roads, and water and sewer lines, before building new infrastructure.

Conservation Development, LLC
Towns following smart growth principles would realize the importance of local historic landmarks. Here is a “before” picture of the James Dean House in Rosemont, New Jersey. Dean, of course, is the actor who played the original “J.R.” in the movie Giant.

Historic Preservation — Communities can revitalize older, traditional business districts by encouraging historic preservation. Well-preserved private homes, examples of rural traditions such as barns, or important downtown structures enable both residents and visitors to feel a sense of place.

Conservation Development, LLC
And here is the James Dean House after it was fixed up.

Street and streetscape improvements —Street retrofits and streetscape improvements in business districts can make downtowns more appealing to residents and visitors and can help attract more patrons to local businesses. Ensuring that streets support multiple modes of transportation, including walking, cycling, and transit, can enhance town centers by making them more accessible to all populations while also limiting or slowing automobile traffic.

Targeted new development — By targeting new development into existing growth areas or downtown corridors, where infrastructure already exists, communities can ensure that private investment generates the maximum benefit for the community while avoiding the expense of providing new infrastructure that is required for Greenfield development.

Overcoming barriers to infill — Existing codes and ordinances may make it difficult to accomplish infill development and brownfield redevelopment. Where infrastructure already exists, communities may need to revise their existing policies or adopt new ones that enable infill development to occur.

Split-rate tax — Split-rate or two-rate property tax policies divide the property tax into two parts, focusing one part of the tax rate on building value and improvements and the other part on the value of the land. This type of tax reduces the tax on the building, creating incentives for maintaining and improving properties, and increases the value of land, reducing land speculation and encouraging infill development.

Adaptive reuse — Reusing existing buildings rather than demolishing the old and then building anew preserves historically important buildings and conserves energy and resources. 

School rehabilitation — As communities grow larger and/or older, they face the need for updated educational facilities. Neighborhood schools typically provide historic, sentimental, and even health and safety benefits to neighboring residents, whose children may be able to walk to school. Demolishing old school buildings in favor of larger facilities outside existing neighborhoods forces staff, parents, and children to drive to school rather than have the option to safely walk or bicycle within the neighborhood. When new schools are required, old school buildings can be rehabilitated to other uses in order to preserve the important historic features of a community and build onto the fabric of the existing town.

Local business survey — In order to foster economic development in existing downtowns, it is important to assess the assets and needs of the businesses that are located in the area.

Goal Three: Create Great New Places

Visioning — Before a community creates or updates its comprehensive plan or makes other important growth and development decisions, it is helpful for the community to undergo a visioning process to articulate a broad vision of itself into the future.

Places worth preserving — Before deciding where great new places should be located, the community should consider which land and resources are important to conserve for economic, cultural, or ecological reasons.

Infrastructure grid and transportation options — Placing infrastructure along a grid is not only efficient— it also allows for easy expansion.

National Trust for Historic Preservation
El Dorado, Arkansas, won the Great American Main Street Award in 2009.

Distinctive local character — It is important that great new places reflect the cultural character of the region. Articulating what makes nearby places distinctive and attractive helps ensure that new development reflects these important features and supports the region surrounding it.

Walkability — New neighborhoods that have a grid-like street network equipped with sidewalks and bike lanes encourage residents to walk or bicycle to their destinations. Compact and mixed-use developments are also important components of walkability, ensuring that essential destinations are centrally located and accessible.

Form-based codes — A relatively new approach to regulating development, form-based codes are used to achieve a specific urban form rather than designate specific land uses, as is typical in conventional zoning. Form-based codes can help a community support mixed uses, diverse housing options, and open space while also paying attention to design details such as streetscapes and façades.

Green street design — Green street design options are aimed primarily at environmental enhancement, although they have additional advantages. Typical strategies for green street design include reducing impervious surface cover to assist in stormwater management and reduce the heat island effect; using the public right-of-way for multiple purposes, such as trails that can permit both stormwater management and recreation; and strategic plantings to allow biofiltration to treat runoff and improve water quality.

 

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