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Regional planning needed Step toward evaluating growth could limit sprawl and costs

Methods to be used in improving the way Erie County plans its growth must, of course, be planned. So rushing to the voters as soon as this November with a new idea for a revived county planning commission might be a bit abrupt. The proposal, though, clearly has merit.

As pitched by County Executive Joel A. Giambra, the idea is to ask voters for permission to invest a regenerated county planning commission with the power to review not only proposed developments adjacent to property owned by the county or state, which the county planning staff already examines, but also any proposed subdivision within the county.

By state law, a county planning board would lack the power to rezone, or refuse to rezone, land for development. That power is retained by the affected town or village. A county board, however, would be able to block the extension of county services, specifically roads and sewers, to any project it deems to be an exacerbation of urban sprawl. And, despite the decline in population suffered in recent years, sprawl is a serious problem in Erie County.

In some cities, sprawling communities fill up their inner cities, then their first-ring suburbs, then their exurbs as population grows and housing prices soar. It's expensive to support all that development with roads and sewers and schools and fire stations, but the tax base at least has a hope of keeping pace. Buffalo and Erie County, on the other hand, have the problem of new and expensive subdivisions growing up around a core city and even some older suburbs that are increasingly victims of depopulation and abandoned homesteads.

There is only so much government can do about that trend. But it ought not facilitate it, especially when it is clear that such scattered growth costs the county, and its taxpayers, money. The cost of the public services for new developments -- especially when there are so many existing homes and so much vacant land that has already been fitted with sewer service -- is a drain on county coffers, even if they temporarily boost the viability of some of those outer 'burbs.

A drive down Transit Road illustrates just how tempting it is for those outer communities to approve whatever developments they are offered as a quick boost to their tax base. They have no political or legal responsibility to preserve the viability of any other city or town. But the county, and all the taxpayers in it, should care about exactly that, and should seriously consider empowering an agency whose job it is to look at the big picture of development, its cost to the taxpayers, and do what it can to temper the expensive process of sprawl.

Growth does not need to be stopped, a fear of many developers, builders, realtors and landowners. But it does need to be carefully considered, options need to be weighed, and conformity with the greater public good needs to be evaluated. In short, there's a need for regional as well as local planning. This proposal is a step in that direction, and worth exploring.

If that debate, especially the particulars of populating such a board with a fair scatter of legitimate interests, can be had in time for a November ballot, fine. If not, next year will offer a longer opportunity for a public discussion that definitely needs to happen.

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