This area's proposed new Framework for Regional Growth, headed toward a possible vote today in the Erie County Legislature after a five-year study, offers a good vision of how to guide development over the next 15 years. It also makes a strong case for a regional planning board to take this area into the next phase of the 21st century.
County legislators now have the opportunity to show convincing support for the framework. This comprehensive effort included a broad range of players from throughout the region who offered critical observation and expertise. It's not just another layer of bureaucracy. It's a needed blueprint.
The question remains whether politicians will take this document and shelve it, or whether the region's 64 independent municipal governments -- three cities, 25 towns and 16 villages in Erie County and three cities, 12 towns and five villages in Niagara County -- all will work together toward better regional planning. History says otherwise. Going forward, can it be rewritten?
Gaining that forward motion would take an abandonment of traditional turf wars, and the replacement of that balkanization with cooperation and understanding of this area's place in the national and international arena. Erie and Niagara counties sit along an international border and, therefore, hold significant importance for this nation. Starting in Erie County, this long-studied framework respects and recognizes that fact and offers itself as a reference.
Both counties have experienced, over the last several decades, a shift in population away from the center and toward the outer reaches. That "suburban sprawl" has occurred largely in an underplanned, scattershot manner while, at the urban core, infrastructure built for a long-ago large population remains increasingly unused as urban population and properties -- both commercial and residential -- go vacant. An aging population, with young people moving away from the area completely, creates further pressure -- fewer start-up homes are needed or built, while large suburban tracts fill with large homes on larger lots that trigger a costly need to expand roads and utilities.
Development is not to be discouraged, but a policy in which planning is the priority and recommendations help curb sprawl and maximize the use of already-existing resources offers a valuable approach.
The county framework is intended as a tool to help county and regional leaders make better policy and investment decisions according to the document, more effectively leveraging limited resources and providing more consistent direction and useful support to municipalities. Drawing from numerous data sources, this document provides the foundation for development of a regional planning board that will examine development issues as they affect the entire region.
With the cooperation of the Erie County Industrial Development Agency, those recommendations could carry the carrot of incentives for Smart Growth strategies, or wield the stick against maverick projects that drain the resources of the regional community. The effort is not without potential pitfalls; an earlier regional planning board withered under the pressure of politics. Nor is it perfect -- recommendations aren't that effective unless the recommending agency has teeth. But this is a step toward controlling the shape of the future. For that reason, it deserves support.