(CNSNews.com) – The Senate Banking Committee passed the Livable Communities Act on Tuesday, moving the bill one step closer to final passage. The bill creates $4 billion in neighborhood planning grants for “sustainable” living projects and a new federal office to oversee them.
Similar legislation in the House has been criticized by Republicans on the House Budget Committee, who charge that “the program’s aim is to impose a Washington-based, central planning model on localities across the country.”
In the Senate version, written by outgoing Chairman Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), the Livable Communities Act would designate $4 billion to aid local governments in planning high-density, walkable neighborhoods.
Premised on helping local governments to combat suburban sprawl and traffic congestion, the bill sets up two separate grant programs. One, known as Comprehensive Planning Grants, would go to cities and counties to assist them in carrying out such plans as the following:
-- “(1) coordinate land use, housing, transportation, and infrastructure planning processes across jurisdictions and agencies” and
-- “(3) conduct or update housing, infrastructure, transportation, energy, and environmental assessments to determine regional needs and promote sustainable development; [and]
-- “… (5) implement local zoning and other code changes necessary to implement a comprehensive regional plan and promote sustainable development.”
The second grant type – Sustainability Challenge Grants – funds local efforts to:
--“(1) promote integrated transportation, housing, energy, and economic development activities carried out across policy and governmental jurisdictions;
-- (2) promote sustainable and location-efficient development; and
-- (3) implement projects identified in a comprehensive regional plan.”
To administer and regulate these new grants, the bill creates the Office of Sustainable Housing and Communities (OSHC) within the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
The legislation is designed to prod local communities toward high-density, public transit-oriented neighborhoods that concentrate large numbers of people into small geographic areas connected by train and bus networks.
These high-density neighborhoods would be combined with high-density commercial districts that – in theory – would reduce the need for daily driving and commuting.
In describing the Livable Communities Act, Dodd has said that “with sustainable development, our communities will cut traffic congestion; reduce greenhouse gas emissions and gasoline consumption; protect rural areas and green spaces; revitalize existing Main Streets and urban centers; and create more affordable housing.”
In his opening statement on Tuesday, Dodd said, “Over the past 50 years, poorly coordinated transportation, community development and housing policies led to growth away from urban areas and rural town centers. Between 1980 and 2000, the growth of the largest 99 metro areas in the United States consumed 16 million acres of rural land – about an acre for every new household.”
Dodd said that his bill would try to entice localities to move away from this model of suburban home- and land-ownership and toward a centrally planned model where local government officials make housing, business, and transportation decisions that steer residential and economic growth into designated high-density areas.
Dodd said that the new centralized development model would reduce traffic congestion, create jobs, and make residential and commercial development more environmentally friendly.
“This legislation provides for planning and capital grants so that regions can coordinate transportation, housing, and community development policies to reduce traffic congestion, generate economic growth, create and preserve affordable housing, and meet environmental and energy goals,” he explained.
Dodd told CNSNews.com that the grants were available for the taking, saying that the program is voluntary and intended to let localities build planned communities without having to worry about changing economic conditions.
“The question is are the resources and the expertise available for people then to do the kind of planning – that’s all we’re talking about here – so they can plan better in these communities,” he said. “It’s not a radical idea. What’s radical is not doing anything about it.
“The problems aren’t going to go away, the demographics aren’t going to change because the economy’s down,” Dodd said.
“Some communities may be able to do it – this is not a mandate on anybody – but just merely saying we understand your needs, we understand the constraints you’re operating under, we understand your appetite to want to do something about this, and here’s an example where three levels of government – national, state, and local – can work with each other towards a common goal,” he added.
Dodd said the OSHC would not be making planning decisions for city and county governments. Instead, he said that the office – in addition to administering the grants – would function as a resource for localities seeking to do the planning themselves.
“That’s kind of the resource capacity for the communities,” Dodd said. “It’s not standards. We’re not going to apply standards. We’re going to stay far away from that. We’re not going to sit here and set [development] standards because you’ve got to let the flexibility – rural communities, suburban, large urban areas – they need to decide themselves what they want to do in terms of how they link together housing, transit, and energy needs in their communities.
“They ought to be given the total flexibility to decide how that responds,” said Dodd.