Nationwide, communities struggle with ways to regulate growth

VOTERS in this affluent but traffic-choked Bay Area suburb decided yesterday whether to halt all building until new streets are completed and some of the more knotty downtown intersections are unraveled. While no information on the outcome was available at press time, observers expected the measure to carry. A recent spurt of office-space development sparked the Nov. 5 vote. ``People started seeing buildings coming out of the ground,'' says Gary Binger, Walnut Creek's director of community development, ``and said, `Wait a minute! We're already congested.' ''

The City Council would have preferred to impose a quota, setting a limit on the amount of office development allowed each year, Mr. Binger explains. But that, apparently, was a little tame for the aroused citizenry.

A continent away, a different set of voters, with different but related concerns, will cast their votes on a proposed moratorium Nov. 21. The folks in Peterborough, N.H., a small town that's determined to remain just that, will decide whether to put a strict limit on the number of building permits they'll allow the developers who are drooling over the appealing, woodsy community.

What these two examples indicate is that the suburban, growth-control movement that revved up in the mid-1970s, though slowing a bit in recent years, still has a good head of steam behind it.

Moratoriums, which buy breathing space for towns beset by rapid growth, are one growth-control tool being wielded freely today. They're commonly imposed for a specified time, during which communities can tackle such issues as traffic patterns, extension of sewer and water lines, or revamping of zoning laws.

Douglas Porter of the Urban Land Institute (ULI) says towns are applying ``fairly sophisticated growth-management methods'' that can stretch the timetable for development and thus effectively phase in growth.

But some of the glow has worn off growth-limitation activism since the '70s, Mr. Porter adds. He mentions a recent ULI symposium that brought together representatives from many of the places that pioneered growth limitation over the past decade -- Boulder, Colo., Petaluma, Calif., and Montgomery County, Md., for example.

``Back 10 years ago, they thought such devices promised real control over what's going on,'' Porter says. But what came across during the ULI gathering, he says, is that the development process is still ``beset by politics'' in these communities. ``Easy answers'' are still elusive.

The search for answers goes on, however, spurred by the vigorous desires of many local residents to preserve their town's charm. Philip Herr, a Boston-based planning consultant who spends much of his time helping communities deal with growth, highlights six heavily interrelated motives behind efforts to crimp development:

The feeling that the urban ills people sought to escape are following them into the suburbs or countryside.

The fiscal worries brought on by growth, such as higher taxes to support expansion of services.

Concern about social change, including the perception that the people now moving into an area, wealthy or poor, are ``simply different'' from earlier residents.

Concern that the ``quality of community life'' is sagging -- it's harder to influence local government, and you no longer ``know everyone'' in town.

Distaste for the ``political turmoil'' that seems to accompany every push to enlarge community services.

A simple distaste for change ``in a society that's full of rapid change.''

These motives, and the local policies springing from them, fully surfaced only after World War II, Mr. Herr says. Traditionally, government has taken a hand in encouraging growth -- as many state and local governments still do.

Indirect means of dampening development were the first ``mechanisms'' used, Herr explains. Large-lot zoning, requirements that developers pay for increased services, and special protections for agricultural land, among other such methods, continue to be liberally used throughout the country. Direct ways of stemming growth rates -- quotas on building permits and tying development to expansion of services, for instance -- took deepest root in California and spread to other regions.

The perpetual fine tuning of growth-control devices over recent years has resulted in ``an array of tools'' for city planners, Herr says -- tools now hardened by the heat of litigation, as developers claiming infringement of property rights took local governments to court.

The legal issues have been pretty well sorted out in favor of towns and cities, according to the ULI's Porter. ``As long as a town shows it's done extensive studies . . , that it has been rational and methodical, it can do about anything it wants to do'' in the growth-limitation arena.

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