Joint planning between Niagara and Erie counties, essentially dead since 1991, would be revived and strengthened under a proposal by one of the area's leading proponents of regionalism.
Attorney Kevin P. Gaughan, whose 1997 Chautauqua Conference on Regional Governance spurred renewed interest in regionalism, is asking local government leaders to create a Buffalo Niagara regional planning council to provide a more intelligent approach to area development.
"We've achieved some small triumphs, but almost exclusively in consolidating government," Gaughan said. "Regionalism not only seeks to reduce government costs but to increase a sense of shared community."
Gaughan's proposal comes at a time when County Executive Joel A. Giambra, one of the earliest advocates for regionalism, also is taking steps to revive some sort of regional planning.
Giambra and Clyde Burmaster, chairman of the Niagara County Legislature, have met twice with their counterparts in Monroe County, home of Rochester, and the Niagara Region of Ontario in what they're calling a Binational Forum.
"My sense is we (should) not limit it to Erie and Niagara counties," Giambra said. "I'm thinking about instituting a regional planning agency that extends beyond Erie and Niagara to Monroe and Chautauqua counties, too.
"We have to consider ourselves as a large region that has a lot to offer beyond individual corporate boundaries. Monroe and Erie counties have a lot in common."
Gaughan's plan calls for a planning council limited to the two counties that make up the metropolitan area.
"I've considered multiple counties, but my sense is, given the history of planning efforts here, we start with Erie and Niagara counties and then consider expanding to places like Chautauqua and Genesee."
Gaughan proposes a 21-member council that would have much greater powers than the defunct Erie and Niagara County Regional Planning Board. The regional board was disbanded 10 years ago after former County Executive Dennis T. Gorski withdrew funding.
Gaughan's new proposal calls for a council that would have extensive say in planning and zoning issues in the two counties, particularly in suburban areas. It would create a regional comprehensive plan that would identify planning goals for the next 50 years.
All communities within the two counties would be required to coordinate and adjust their individual plans to agree with the regional plan. One of the major goals would be to steer development toward the cities of Buffalo and Niagara Falls and curb urban sprawl.
Almost half the membership of the council would come from the two urban areas. Each mayor would have four representatives, and the city councils would have one each. The two counties would have three members, with the remaining five coming from other regional organizations.
"The successful American regions have emphasized urban reinvestment, and that's what we need to accomplish here," Gaughan said.
There would be no representatives from suburban towns or villages. Gaughan said the counties would represent interests of suburban communities on the proposed regional planning council.
Ultimately, Gaughan said, the planning council could substantially reduce, if not eliminate, planning offices in towns, villages and the counties and consolidate all industrial development agencies. City planning offices would remain, he said.
"A regional council would sustain the Buffalo-Niagara sense of place and develop citizen consensus for the type of community we desire to live in," he said.
Gaughan also said meetings of his proposed planning council would be open to the public, as opposed to the closed sessions of the previous board.
Giambra's concept, while covering a broader area, would not replace the planning functions of the local governments.
"It would definitely have a board and most likely have a paid staff, but it would not duplicate other planning operations," he said.
The county executive said no definite proposal has been prepared yet, but he said he would want to include the current cooperative venture between the Erie and Niagara counties' legislatures called the Erie Niagara Regional Partnership.
"I want it to have teeth, and I want it to be effective," Giambra said.
Burmaster supports the Binational Forum effort and said regional planning is more important now than when the earlier planning board was disbanded 10 years ago.
"Instead of barriers between Niagara and Erie counties, it behooves us to work together," he said.