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Lisa Hymas

Romney’s smart growth program

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Everyone knows that “Obamacare” was modeled on Mitt Romney’s Massachusetts health-care law. But did you know that a key Obama “smart growth” initiative — the Partnership for Sustainable Communities — was also created in the mold of a Romney program?

Tea Partiers rallied to quash funding for this Obama partnership last fall. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), conservative darling, criticized the idea for the partnership when it first arose and accused the Obama administration of trying to impose “an urban-utopian fantasy through an unprecedented intrusion of the Federal Government into the shaping of local communities.” The Republican National Committee recently warned that smart growth is part of a U.N. conspiracy (green helicopters, anyone?).

This is yet another issue on which the party’s presumptive presidential nominee looks to be seriously out of sync with the GOP base.

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Romney’s “get smart” phase

As governor of Massachusetts, Romney actively fought sprawl and promoted density. He ran on a smart-growth platform: “Sprawl is the most important quality-of-life issue facing Massachusetts,” he said in 2002.

After winning, Romney swiftly set about remaking state government to encourage smarter land use. He created a powerful new Office for Commonwealth Development, and appointed an aggressive environmental activist to run it — Douglas Foy, who for 25 years had headed the Conservation Law Foundation, a litigious regional environmental group. The state’s business community was appalled.

The Office for Commonwealth Development served as a “super-secretariat” or umbrella office for state agencies dealing with transportation, housing, energy, and the environment. It made sure the agencies were all pulling in the same direction toward smart-growth goals — concentrating development in town centers, constructing housing near transit stations, fixing existing roads instead of building new ones.

“I think [Romney] views sprawl as inefficient land use, and he’s all about efficiency. From a business perspective, he thinks smart growth makes a lot of sense,” says Anthony Flint, who served as a policy advisor in the Office for Commonwealth Development under Romney, and is now a fellow at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, a think tank in Cambridge, Mass.

The Romney administration pursued smart growth not through strict regulation but through incentives. The Office for Commonwealth Development channeled hundreds of millions in state funds to cities and towns that changed zoning rules to allow more high-density housing and adopted other smart-growth policies.

Romney was a vocal advocate for the cause. “I very much believe in the concept known as smart growth or sustainable development, which is the phrase I used in the campaign,” Romney told CommonWealth magazine in 2003. “You do not want to deplete your green space and air and water [in order] to grow, and the only way that’s possible is if your growth is done in a thoughtful, coherent, strategic way.”

As Romney put it in 2005, “By targeting development to areas where there is already infrastructure in place, not only can we revitalize our older communities, but we can also curb sprawl as well.” His administration actively pursued a “sustainable development agenda” and promoted “transit-oriented development,” “multi-modal transportation,” “village-style zoning,” “green building,” “mixed-use” development, “mixed-income housing,” and other approaches that would delight any green-leaning city planner — and rile up any red-blooded Tea Partier.

Environmental activists still found plenty to criticize in Romney’s approach to land use and development, but many greens and smart-growth advocates were pleasantly surprised, at least in the first half of Romney’s term. In 2006, the U.S. EPA gave Massachusetts’ Office for Commonwealth Development its National Award for Smart Growth Achievement.

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Where’s Mitt now?

As you might expect, Romney has not been talking about sprawl or smart growth on the campaign trail, and his campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

With other issues — like health care, abortion, and immigration — Romney has flip-flopped from the centrist views he held as governor to right-wing positions now preferred by the GOP base. Because smart growth hasn’t risen to the level of national discussion, Romney hasn’t had to clarify his position on this topic.

Romney told a small group of donors last week that he might completely eliminate one of the departments involved in the Partnership for Sustainable Communities — HUD, which his father headed during the Nixon administration. A few months ago, Romney said the EPA under Obama was “out of control,” though he’s stopped short of calling for it to be abolished. Considering those views, it seems highly unlikely that Romney would want anything like the partnership operating under his watch.

Perhaps, in the same way he has defended his Massachusetts health-care program, Romney would argue that pursuing smart growth at the state level makes sense while doing so at the federal level would be overreach. But as both Romney’s Office for Commonwealth Development and Obama’s Partnership for Sustainable Communities used taxpayer dollars to influence what local communities do, is there really such a dramatic distinction between them?

People who worked with or closely observed Romney during his governorship aren’t sure what his current, or “real,” views on smart growth are.

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Full Story: Romney, once an anti-sprawl crusader, created model for Obama ‘smart growth’ program
Source: Grist, April 23, 2012

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