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Plan maps approach to curbing sprawl Erie County poised to adopt 'framework'

Erie and Niagara counties rely on a provocative development practice: Each year, they build lots of new homes even though they lose lots of people.

More homes means more schools, more roads and sidewalks, more water and sewer lines -- all supported by fewer people.

That means higher taxes.

"We can't continue down this road," said George Grasser, a prominent real estate attorney and an advocate for "Smart Growth" policies. "Other communities have done it. Now we have to do it."

Grasser says the "it" can be found in the Framework for Regional Growth, a new strategy, five years in the making and now poised to become Erie County's vision of how to guide development over the next 15 years.

Supporters, who met last week with writers and editors at The Buffalo News, say they expect the County Legislature to endorse the framework Thursday.

"It's my strong hope and belief it will pass with broad bipartisan support," said Majority Leader Maria Whyte, a Buffalo Democrat.

If it does, it would put the county on record as supporting "planned growth," a strategy that promotes development in targeted areas within every village, town and city.

The document also promotes redeveloping vacant, underutilized sites and stabilizing neighborhoods.

While the framework would be policy, not law, it recommends ways the county can use its legal powers to combat suburban sprawl.

The county, for example, might have the authority to reject a proposed subdivision that hinged on expanding the local sewer district if that somehow violated the framework.

The framework, an effort launched in 2002 by Erie County Executive Joel A. Giambra and then-Niagara County Legislature Chairman Bradley E. Erck, has the backing of a wide array of groups, from the Buffalo Niagara Partnership to the League of Women Voters.

Many of them say the time has come to curtail the competition and turf wars that arise from New York's historical form of local government control, known as home rule.

In Erie and Niagara counties, that means 45 local governments with control over growth on their turfs.

Andrew R. Graham, an anti-sprawl advocate for VOICE-Buffalo, calls that a death sentence. He says the region should heed the advice of David Rusk, an urban planner who claims the most successful communities have the least governmental fragmentation.

The way to turn things around, Graham suggests, is to replace the "little fiefdoms of power" with a regional approach that steers growth to the right areas.

"The buildings will go where it makes financial sense," Graham said.

The framework, completed in October, was drawn up by Hellmuth, Obata and Kassabaum, a Washington, D.C., consulting firm, under the direction of a steering committee of about 20 elected officials and local leaders.

While the report recommends resurrecting a two-county planning board -- a similar board was eliminated years ago -- that idea might not have the necessary political backing.

But if even only one county uses the report, it could have a profound impact on development in such growth towns as Wheatfield in Niagara County and Clarence and Lancaster in Erie. It also could face opposition from, among others, local home builders.

Many of them don't buy the notion that Western New York has sprawl and point to areas of the country, most notably Atlanta, where the number of new houses outpaces Erie County by a more than 40-to-1 ratio.

Builders also argue that the relationship between sprawl and higher taxes is unfounded, and they point to areas such as Atlanta and Las Vegas, where sprawl is huge but the tax burden is low.

Copies of the framework can be found on the Web at www.regionalframework.com.

e-mail: pfairbanks@buffnews.com

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