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Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency won't show its muscle, critics say

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Using regional planning to control growth (PDF)

What is a regional planning group?

A powerful regional agency, panned for its narrow focus on roads and bridges, decided last year to look at the big picture with a $100,000 study of the region's economy. But before the year was done, the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency directed the money to a more-urgent need -- the study of another road project.

And that, NOACA's critics say, illustrates a problem: An agency with the potential to push solutions for our regional woes, especially urban sprawl, instead sticks with its basic transportation-planning duties.

"The agency could well take a more muscular stance on a wider range of issues . . . without a whole lot of pushback," said a frustrated Bob Layton, an economist who retired from NOACA last year.

In the fifth installment of The Plain Dealer's "A Region Uniting?" series, we look at whether one of our oldest examples of regional government might lead us into new, more-progressive cooperative initiatives such as tax sharing or controls on growth.

NOACA is a "metropolitan planning organization," set up under federal law to give local leaders a voice in transportation planning. While maintaining a low profile, it has been among the region's most powerful bodies for nearly 40 years.

The agency's 38 members include the commissioners from Cuyahoga, Lorain, Medina, Geauga and Lake counties, as well as the mayors from Cleveland, Lorain and Elyria. Each year, they decide how to spend about $40 million in federal money on roads, bridges, public transit and bikeways.

NOACA's top board members and staff say critics expect too much. The agency is limited in what it can tackle by federal rules. And new projects would require more money at a time when transportation dollars are shrinking.

"What we try to do is what's within our purview, what we can implement," said Howard Maier, executive director of NOACA.

But critics say the agency could and should do more to rein in one of our great challenges -- urban sprawl.

NOACA projects that the 2.1 million population of the five counties it oversees will be unchanged in 2030, yet Cuyahoga County will have lost 120,000 more residents. That means more wealth and employment drained from Cleveland and inner-ring suburbs, while outlying cities bear the cost of growth, including new streets, utilities and schools.

To counteract the effect, Layton urged his agency in June 2006 to look at tax sharing.

In a memo titled "Everybody knows the boat is leaking," Layton proposed pooling, and then sharing, a chunk of property taxes from new development across county lines. Needy cities would get more money, and the tax sharing would blunt the tax-break battles and poaching that cities engage in to lure businesses, Layton wrote.

A regional council in Minneapolis-St. Paul oversees a similar tax-sharing program. The Northeast Ohio mayors' group is paying $135,000 to study the idea.

But Layton's proposal went nowhere at NOACA.

Medina County Commissioner Stephen Hambley, then NOACA's board chairman, said an immediate concern was diverting property taxes that would typically go to schools.

"That's a quagmire that most of us dare not venture into," Hambley said.

Layton said the NOACA board should air such ideas. But leadership has "always been reluctant to plow new ground," he said.

Some think board

is short-sighted

NOACA's narrow focus drives regional thinkers like David Beach to distraction.

Beach and others say the agency should be educating the public about development trends and crafting options for growth. The metropolitan planning organization in Sacramento, Calif., for instance, used computers to help plan for growth 50 years from now.

"We should be creating a vision for the kind of communities we want, not just moving cars further and faster," said Beach, head of EcoCity Cleveland, which advocates for development balanced with nature.

Hambley said any planning that looks at how land is used would cause anxiety. Local officials don't want a large organization telling them how to use their community's land, he said.

But NOACA is by no means ignoring sprawl, agency officials said. By policy, NOACA directs most of its spending to projects that preserve the transportation system, not building new streets and bridges.

That's why a big, new project -- a $19 million interchange proposed for Interstate 90 in Avon -- is generating controversy. Cleveland-area officials decry it as another gateway to sprawl. Officials in outlying counties see the potential development as a boon for the region.

So NOACA took the $100,000 budgeted for a look at regional economic development and spent it on a study that concluded the proposed interchange would be a plus.

Should agency merge

with port authority?

Gene Krebs, director of Greater Ohio, a nonprofit organization that promotes urban reinvestment and farmland preservation, said the region sorely needs to merge transportation planning with economic development.

"You can't talk about attracting business into a community until you have an intelligent discussion of how to get people, and raw materials and goods, into and out of your community," the former state legislator said.

Krebs thinks he has the answer -- merging metropolitan planning organizations, like NOACA, with local port authorities, which have wide-ranging powers for economic development. An elected council would oversee the merged, regional body, he said.

"You've created a process that allows for seamless integration of economic development and transportation," Krebs said. "So decisions are not made in a vacuum."

Metropolitan planning groups elsewhere have merged to expand their reach. In Portland, Ore., for instance, the metropolitan planning organization is under an elected council that also oversees parks, recycling and the region's convention and exhibition centers.

Krebs' idea is worth exploring, said David Abbott, director of the Gund Foundation.

"He's right -- transportation is inextricably linked with economic development," Abbott said. "How you go about bringing these two forces together to make a coherent entity is a good question."

Source : http://blog.cleveland.com/pdworld/2007/10/northeast_ohio_areawide_coordi.html

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