The last Erie County Master Plan, adopted in 1974, forecast the population to hit 2 million by the year 2000. But today it's more like 920,000 and fading.
"Obviously, the planners were off a little bit," County Executive Joel A. Giambra said Wednesday, unveiling in the last months of his administration a suggestion to limit suburban sprawl with a question for the voters in November:
Should Erie County re-create a countywide planning board and give it the power to review new subdivisions, to discourage housing that further disperses the populace?
"We are hoping this becomes a campaign issue and a public debate," Giambra said.
From 1950 to 2000, the urbanized area of Erie and Niagara counties -- land with roads, sewers and other infrastructure -- tripled in size, while the population grew just 7 percent.
Erie County today has 130 square miles of undeveloped land with sewers -- an area about 2.5 times the size of Amherst.
The Brookings Institution found that for every new household created in Erie and Niagara counties over a recent 10-year period, four new homes were built, creating a glut of housing as people moved farther from Buffalo and its first-ring suburbs. The number of abandoned housing units in Cheektowaga has topped 500.
These facts are found in the "Framework for Regional Growth," a study of the scope and costs of sprawl by planners and development officials in Erie and Niagara counties. Years in the making, it has been endorsed by the Association of Erie County Governments and the League of Women Voters, which has long argued for policies to limit sprawl. It also has been accepted by the Erie County and Niagara County Legislatures.
Giambra wants a planning board that can review new subdivisions in any Erie County town and determine whether they heed the cautionary tale told in the framework document: The more far-flung the population, the more expensive services become.
The planning board would ask the basic question: Does the new subdivision further expand the urban area and require new sewer services, or does it place its homes closer to the urban core or areas with sewers?
If the subdivisions continue the sprawl, Erie County officials can refuse to extend their sewer lines to new homes. If towns extend their own sewer lines, they might have to build a treatment plant, too, because the county can refuse to accept the sewage at its plants, said Andrew Eszak, Giambra's director of environment and planning and a force behind the study.
In that same vein, the planning board would review the county's long-term plan for road improvements and reject county projects that promote sprawl, Eszak said.
When planners discuss Erie County's suburban expansion, they often mention Clarence as a town where people are settling.
"Clarence was the fastest growing town [in Erie County] from 1990 to 2000," said town Supervisor Kathleen Hallock. She said its master plan stresses the importance of sewers for subdivisions and ensuring new subdivisions go within existing sewer districts. But she said in a couple of cases subdivisions have been placed outside a sewer district, and county officials have agreed to expand the district.
The last time Erie County had a planning board like the one Giambra envisions was in 1991, when the Erie and Niagara Counties Regional Planning Board dissolved amid disputes between Niagara County officials and the administration of then-Erie County Executive Dennis T. Gorski.
Erie County's board would not review subdivisions in Niagara County, which also has maintained its own planning board for decades. Samuel M. Ferraro, the economic development commissioner in Niagara County, agreed with Eszak in saying Niagara's board would meet regularly with Erie's to discuss common concerns.
Giambra proposes a nine-member Erie County Planning Board with a member appointed by the executive director of the Greater Buffalo-Niagara Regional Transportation Council; a member appointed by the Association of Erie County Governments; three appointed by the County Legislature; and four by the future county executive.
None can be a political party official or an elected official in New York. Both Eszak and Giambra said that while members can comment on subdivisions in each town, they would not have authority to reject them. Their clout would be felt in telling county officials whether they can spend county money to extend roads or sewers.
Giambra on Wednesday sent the proposal to create a planning board to the Legislature. It will require a public hearing and a vote by lawmakers, which isn't likely until after their August recess. From there, it will be a procedural rush to get the proposal to voters in November.
"Conceptually it needs to be explored, and it might be a good idea," said Legislature Chairwoman Lynn M. Marinelli, D-Town of Tonawanda. "But I do see a bit of an irony, to create a planning board when the Legislature has not been given time for a legislative planning process."
She said she would send the idea to the Government Affairs Committee led by Buffalo Democrat Maria R. Whyte, an advocate of the framework who helped get it approved in the Legislature.
Whyte, however, said a November referendum leaves too little time for a full community discussion, with town leaders, industrial development agencies and others. A November 2008 public vote seems more realistic, she said.
Giambra has railed against sprawl and government duplication for years with sporadic results. But he did not introduce his measure to create a planning board until this week, less than six months before he leaves office. "There's no such thing as a successful suburb," Giambra said again Wednesday, "if you have a dying city."