It’s one of the newer buzzwords in development, but the idea behind smart growth goes back a long way, according to Jim Gibbons, land use and natural resource program coordinator with the University of Connecticut Cooperative Extension System. Gibbons offered the observation to a roomful of planning professionals at a seminar on smart growth last week.

Several chambers of commerce and Realtors’ associations spearheaded the program – titled “Smart Growth: Is It Practical for Connecticut?” – at the Norwich Comfort Suites on Sept. 17. The program is a result of the work of numerous sponsors – the Eastern Connecticut Association of Realtors, the Midd-Shore Association of Realtors, the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut, the Greater Norwich Area Chamber of Commerce, the Greater Mystic Chamber of Commerce and the Northeastern Connecticut Chamber of Commerce – with Hartford-based government affairs consulting firm Evans & Assoc. Several of the groups have hired the firm to keep an eye on local development issues and to help educate local planning and zoning officials.

Planning and zoning officials from towns throughout eastern Connecticut attended the seminar.

“There’s a tremendous amount of work to be done in this area [of smart growth],” said John Bolduc, executive vice president of the Eastern Connecticut Association of Realtors, before introducing the speakers.

Gibbons started the session with a detailed definition of smart growth and sprawl.

“Most people agree smart growth is planned, it’s managed, it’s proactive,” he said.

But smart growth is often misunderstood, Gibbons said. For many, it’s a catchall phrase that describes policies that direct development to be built near existing infrastructure and connected to public transportation. Smart growth is usually thought of as mixed-use projects that often clean up blighted areas. But smart growth is still growth, Gibbons said.

“It’s not anti-growth,” he said.

Other parts of the definition of smart growth – as defined by a blue ribbon commission on the subject – is that the development enhances a community’s sense of place, protects the environment and keeps taxes low. But the key part of smart growth is comprehensive planning, Gibbons said.

In fact, the New England village, with its center incorporating a green and surrounded by farmland, is a viable model for smart growth, Gibbons said.

Smart growth is often called the solution to sprawl, but sprawl itself is also misunderstood by many, Gibbons said. The actual definition of sprawl is development that is unplanned, low density, single-use, automobile dependent and developed in formerly open spaces. But some people who are opposed to development across the board use sprawl as an excuse to stop any growth.

“To many, sprawl is a nice banner to oppose any new development,” Gibbons said. “It’s a convenient rallying cry.”

Gibbons emphasized that not all new development is sprawl and broke the definition of sprawl down into several sections. Residential sprawl has self-contained, single-family homes on large lots, Gibbons said. On the retail front, sprawl can come in the form of malls, big-box retailers and strip development. Those types of organization are usually car dependent and are accompanied by large amounts of asphalt for parking lots.

Gibbons described retail sprawl as a “mayonaised, franchised landscape of non-classical architecture.”

Community Complicity

A lot of sprawl is characterized by poor sign control and lack of overall planning, he said. There has been sprawl in the tri-state area since the 1960s, he said, when developed areas grew faster that the population.

If the trend continues, it could affect Connecticut’s, New York’s and New Jersey’s abilities to remain economically competitive, he said.

Some of the side effects of sprawl are different for cities, suburbs and rural areas. In cities, declining property values and increased concern for public safety, among other concerns, often accompany sprawl, Gibbons said. In the suburbs, the residential base requires more services than its tax base can provide and rural areas often experience the loss of agricultural land.

“Many studies have documented that sprawl is costly,” Gibbons said.

Sprawl has significant environmental costs, as well, he said. The paving of parking lots leads to water runoff – where rain runs over the pavement, collecting contaminants like oil before seeping into the ground. The loss of wooded land during development can lead to a loss of wildlife habitat and low population density leads to greater land consumption, Gibbons said.

Sprawl can also have social costs when it leaves communities without a sense of place, he said. Because the desire for the familiar often goes along with sprawl, more places across the country are becoming more similar, with the same stores and restaurants as any other place, Gibbons said. Sprawl also leads people to spend more time in the car and suburban living in large, single-family homes can lead to isolation from the dynamics of community.

The causes of sprawl come from many different levels, Gibbons said. States like Connecticut contribute to sprawl by depending heavily on local property taxes, supporting highway systems rather than mass transit and providing little support for state, regional and local planning. Individual towns and cities contribute to sprawl by passing regulations for high minimum-lot sizes, the lack of communication between different boards that regulate land use, the tendency to wait for a crisis before making changes to the zoning or planning documents, and acceptance of any development that brings in tax money regardless of whether it is suitable or well planned.

Developers are often blamed for sprawl, Gibbons said, but they are not the ones who write the regulations. Often, cities and towns are reluctant to approve innovative uses of land, like cluster developments, where homes are grouped together and surrounded by open space, Gibbons said.

But one of the main reasons behind sprawl is the common belief that the American dream can be realized only by living in a big house on its own lot and driving a sports utility vehicle, Gibbons said.

“Yes, the market causes sprawl,” he said. “You and I are the market.”

Seminar attendees also heard from state Rep. Lewis Wallace, D-Danbury, about bills pending in the Legislature that could change development laws and from several other experts on smart-growth development.