Fighting sprawl without a big stick

September 21, 1996|By Andrew Ratner

WILLIAM BAKER was annoyed. The head of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation felt he had been misquoted in a recent Sun editorial.

The editorial said he compared the act of people moving to the suburbs with gun proliferation or cigarette-smoking -- ills, he felt, that warranted firm, corrective action by government.

He said he used the example of cigarettes and seat-belt use, not guns. How a newsmaker says ''seat belts'' and a journalist hears ''guns'' could be fodder for a whole column on accuracy in the media, but that will have to wait for another day.

We're sorry for the confusion, but any of those examples could be good starting points for why Gov. Parris N. Glendening must continue his even-handed course to stem suburban sprawl in Maryland. It is among the most important social and economic issues in the state. It is one of the few that seems to evoke authentic passion in this governor. However, he's likely to fail if zTC he employs the iron hand that some environmentalists and urban scholars espouse.

Mr. Baker was correct that recent laws to encourage seat-belt use and discourage smoking -- and gun sales, for that matter -- have saved lives. But changes in public opinion begot the legislation, not vice versa. While some felt those laws impinged on their freedoms, a majority saw such laws as benefiting themselves, and society at large.

But the public won't buy that argument on suburban sprawl. Many suburbanites might appreciate sprawl's ''big picture'' ills -- lost open space, high infrastructure costs, the hyper-poverty left behind in the city. But unlike cigarettes, guns and failure to use seat belts, the thousands moving into the countryside believe suburbia has been good for their well-being.

Still the dream

Suburbia is still seen as the American dream because it still often delivers that dream. The 14,000 blacks and 37,000 whites who left Baltimore from 1990-94 are apparently among those who agree. The counties are not crime-free, traffic's a mess, the schools can be packed. But senseless violations of property and personal space are still oddities there. My co-workers who reside in the city have been carjacked and serenaded at night by neighborhood gunfights; they have practically lost count of cars stolen. My suburban neighbor had his lawnmower stolen again this summer.

The point isn't to continue to pit city against suburb. Marylanders, wherever they choose to live, would benefit if Mr. Glendening can stem attitudes about the urban core that have impoverished Baltimore, crowded rural vistas and fouled the bay.

His tack so far has been positive. Direct money to older, neglected schools (He made a point of unveiling new school computers in blue-collar Dundalk.) Use loan incentives to prod the middle class into older neighborhoods. He should increase aid to mass transit. Expand light-rail. Develop recreation sites and parks to attract families.

The governor has been right in trying to work with counties that fear a ''Big Brother'' state zoning board like the one his predecessor sought. The counties are leery of ceding power to the state, but also know they can't afford sprawl.

Some experts think the governor must draw a line in the sand; a county allows growth over it, it loses funding. That's pointless. Baltimore County has a much-praised land-use plan, yet thousands of families simply leapfrogged its protected valleys to settle in the counties beyond.

The governor won't stem outmigration by hitting the counties with punitive legislation. He needs to talk strongly and forget the big stick. He must continue to work to revitalize the urban core and change attitudes. Only then will changes in behavior -- and migration patterns -- follow.

Andrew Ratner is director of zoned editorials for The Sun.

Pub Date: 9/21/96

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