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It's about smart growth, stupid

A powerful skeptic embraces a former foe

Steve Stancil — the notoriously bull-dozer-friendly appointee to the supposedly earth-friendly Georgia Regional Transportation Agency — said the most unexpected thing over breakfast Feb. 24 at Country Club of the South.

There in the epicenter of sprawl, the real estate broker and land appraiser told the Greater North Fulton Chamber of Commerce that local governments must embrace greenie, smart-growth logic if the region is ever going to escape its traffic quagmire.

In short, Stancil, a good ol' boy from the sticks who was hand-picked by another good ol' boy from the sticks, Gov. Sonny Perdue, told the usual developers that development as usual was dumb — as in, not smart.

"What happened in the past was people built residential over here and commercial over here, and never the two did meet," Stancil explained. "You have to get in the car to go work. You have to get in the car to get a loaf of bread. If you had a mixed-use development, the trip could be two miles."

Now all Stancil has to do is sell smart growth to the rest of metro Atlanta's skeptics.

According to Stancil's new-and-improved vision, developers should put higher density projects near mass transit, giving residents the option of commuting to work minus their cars. Stancil also said he'll urge local governments to be more welcoming of mixed-use developments so that some residents can even walk to work, or at least to do their shopping.

Sure, this concept of land use planning has been around in some fashion for decades. But it's more than a little surprising that Stancil's the one pushing such a progressive idea.

During his tenure as a legislator from Canton, Stancil opposed the creation of GRTA, the agency he is now executive director of, and wrote op-eds slamming commuter rail — and smart growth.

When Perdue announced his choice for GRTA's new leader, CL named Stancil Scalawag of the Week and wrote that he was "not the man for the job."

For a while, it looked like CL was right. Stancil's first big traffic solution — telecommuting — wasn't exactly a groundbreaking proposal.

But in the four months since he was sworn in, Stancil has toured a few smart growth developments, which have been made possible by GRTA's partner in planning, the Atlanta Regional Commission. He liked what he saw.

It also hasn't hurt that groups who speak Stancil's language, the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce and Cousins Properties, for example, are pushing land use nearly as hard as the Sierra Club.

One week before he addressed the crowd at Country Club of the South, Stancil heard Cousins CEO Thomas Bell say the mega-developer would sooner build an eight-acre mixed-use development than a 100-acre subdivision. But, Bell claimed, it would take twice as long to clear the government hurdles for the mixed-use project.

That's what Stancil said he intends to fix. He doesn't want governments to force developers to build mixed-use, or even require developments to be a certain size or density. That would be too Big Government of him. But he does want it to be just as easy for developers to build a mixed-use neighborhood as it is to build a cul-de-sac community.

But has Stancil converted too late?

Transportation experts' rosier forecasts show congestion in the region will be the same in 2030 as it is now.

But that's not too bad considering an additional 2.3 million people are expected to call Atlanta home by then. And it could be better, studies show, if land use plans entered the equation soon.

"I'm one of those people that was very skeptical of land use," Stancil says. "Lots of folks say, 'By golly, we really don't want Big Government telling us what to do with our property.' I understand that thought process."

But now, he says, "One of the things I hope we are successful in doing at GRTA in the next few months is encourage local government to change their ordinances to allow mixed-use, to give them a choice if they want" smart growth.

michael.wall@creativeloafing.com