What’s one way to make it clear that your town is committed to Strong Towns principles? Put them right into your comprehensive plan.

Strong Towns member, Andrew Stern, works as Director of Planning and Development in the Pennsylvania township of East Hempfield. During his community’s creation of a new comprehensive plan, Andrew and his colleagues have incorporated Strong Towns ideas into the document, which will guide the town’s future. A recent draft of the comp plan stated in its introduction: “Throughout this document the Strong Towns model has been included where relevant to set the tone for the direction East Hempfield Township plans to move with our specific goals and strategies.”

I spoke with Andrew earlier this month to find out how the process has gone. He explained that this plan is quite different from others in the towns’ history. “In the past, most of our comp plans were huge,” he said. “They’re written because state law requires it, but they’re usually just put on the books and nobody really follows them. I used to work in the private sector and would write these. We’d make money off them, but they didn’t do much.”

Throughout his 26 years working on planning and development in local communities, Andrew has seen the Growth Ponzi Scheme firsthand.

Andrew had seen many of the issues that Strong Towns advocates for in action before he was officially introduced to the movement by the chairman of his town’s board of supervisors. Throughout his 26 years working on planning and development in local communities, Andrew has seen the Growth Ponzi Scheme firsthand: “People put in very, very wide streets, curbs, and fancy public improvements--all paid for by developers. That’s great that they pay for it, but when they turn it over to us, how are we going to pay for it?”

Andrew is hopeful that East Hempfield’s new comprehensive plan will address some of this overspending. Flexibility and sustainability are two central tenets of the new plan. Specific goals highlighted in the draft that align closely with Strong Towns principles include the following:

  • Continue to provide a diverse mix of land uses within the Township.
  • Allow the “market” to determine best development practices in appropriately zoned areas of the Township.
  • Encourage redevelopment of older homes in the Township.
  • Promote sustainable development practices to reduce initial and ongoing costs of home ownership.
  • Encourage sustainable development practices related to utilities.   

Zoning is a focal issue of concern for Andrew Stern and the town of East Hempfield. He explained, “To me, planning should be a little more fluid than it is. Often our own ordinances are our demise. […] Unless there’s a reason to have an ordinance, why do we have it?” Unfortunately, the town’s ability to adjust zoning is limited by the state’s planning code which is “very old and our political leaders have no interest in updating it.” Nonetheless, East Hempfield’s comprehensive plan is a step in the right direction, and regular updates should ensure that is stays fresh, relevant and flexible to the community’s needs.

(Top photo by Johnny Sanphillippo)

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