Consortium will address harm caused by suburban sprawl
CLEVELAND, Ohio -- The biggest and most ambitious regional planning effort in half a century is taking aim at suburban sprawl and the economic mayhem it’s causing in Northeast Ohio.The year-old Northeast Ohio Sustainable Communities Consortium wants to envision a rational future for the 12 counties of Northeast Ohio, where expanding suburbs are consuming hundreds of square miles of farmland while cities are thinning out and the region overall is losing population.The pattern harms the region's economy, the group says, because fewer and fewer taxpayers are carrying ever more fiscal overhead for everything from roads to schools and public services. It also hurts the environment and renders the region more vulnerable to higher gas prices.“We're growing our footprint but not the population to pay for it,” said veteran Northeast Ohio planner Hunter Morrison. “We need to make some choices about where to focus and where to concentrate.”The consortium, a nonprofit coalition of 32 local and regional government and nonprofit agencies and foundations, consolidated after winning a $4.25 million planning grant in late 2010 from a new federal program aimed at strengthening regional planning.The group has spent more than a year quietly organizing itself — a testament to the difficulty of herding together representatives from a large, politically fragmented region with more than 400 units of government. In addition to the federal funds, the group has raised $2.4 million in in-kind services from its members, and $500,000 from the Fund for Our Economic Future.In June, the consortium plans to go public with its first major public statement — a report on the challenges caused by outward migration from urban centers to distant suburbs, plus the implications for everything from affordable housing to transit, energy and the environment.It will also launch a series of public meetings and Internet-based tools to engage the public in what it’s calling a “Vibrant Northeast Ohio” dialogue on the future.The tools will include images that show how communities would grow in the future based on current zoning and land use, or alternative visions. The feedback will help the group complete its plan by 2013.Ultimately, the consortium hopes persuade hundreds of municipalities and government entities to change where and when they allow development by demonstrating the future consequences — and costs — of continuing outward growth.The consortium faces big obstacles, including the reality that it has no real power. Under the home rule authority granted by the Ohio Constitution, municipalities determine land use and zoning, not counties or regional agencies.Previous efforts at regional planning in Northeast Ohio in the 1970s failed in part for that reason, along with a lack of consensus and follow-through.“Home rule is a reality, but it does not limit communities from collaborating on things that are in their mutual interest,” Morrison said.Some of the consortium’s own members worry openly about whether they’ll succeed in persuading local governments to change course. At the same time, they say, the region can’t afford to continue growing into open countryside while urban centers such as Cleveland, Lorain, Youngstown and Akron thin out.“Our costs of government and infrastructure are rising at many multiples of our economic growth,” said Brad Whitehead, president of the Fund for Our Economic Future. “We are literally drowning ourselves in concrete.”A pair of maps developed by the consortium (and adapted for this article by The Plain Dealer) illustrate the dilemma in stark terms.They show that the population of Cuyahoga, Lorain, Medina, Wayne, Stark, Summit, Portage, Mahoning, Trumbull, Ashtabula, Lake and Geauga counties fell by 7 percent from 4.1 million in 1970 to 3.8 million in 2010.At the same time, non-agricultural areas with more than 500 people per square mile grew 33 percent over the four decades, from 1,200 to 1,600 square miles. While cities started to hollow out, suburban areas added 400 more square miles of roads, parking lots, strip shopping centers, subdivisions, multiplexes, fast food restaurants, schools, churches and gas stations.The maps show that the expansion largely followed interstate highways built from the late 1950s to the 1970s and ’80s. Hot spots for development have included western Cuyahoga and eastern Lorain counties, Medina County and the 50-mile corridor from Canton north to Lake Erie along I-77, Ohio 8 and I-271.Northeast Ohio is paying a price for the current pattern through costly duplication of services among local governments, Morrison said. The region also suffers from poor linkages among affordable housing, transit systems and job centers.