Maryland's pitchman for 'Smart Growth' Governor's advocate educates and recruits community leaders

February 03, 1997|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,SUN STAFF

When Ronald L. Young first tried to demonstrate the evils of suburban sprawl, he showed his audience a photograph of luxury houses on half-acre lots.

He wanted people to see how wasteful the large lots were, but their reaction was quite the opposite. They cooed over the acres of green lawns, asphalt driveways and vinyl siding.

"Hmm, that's pretty," he recalled them saying. "I could live like that."

No one said it would be easy running from fire halls in Baltimore County to school auditoriums on the Eastern Shore, lecturing on the ills of Maryland's expanding suburbs.

People say they don't like strip malls, congested highways and farms-turned-into-subdivisions -- until it comes time to buy a house.

But that's Young's job. He's leader of a grass-roots campaign aimed ultimately at persuading the General Assembly to adopt Gov. Parris N. Glendening's plan to control sprawl by directing state spending on infrastructure toward existing population centers and away from areas of low-density development.

Every governor since Marvin Mandel has tried and failed to halt sprawl development. This time, Glendening believed a campaign aimed at educating community leaders and recruiting their help could yield a far better result.

"We knew that if we were going to be serious about this, we had to do it differently from how it was done in past legislative sessions," said Steven B. Larsen, Glendening's chief legislative aide. "Ron has been talking to county commissioners, to planners, to many nongovernment groups. He's really raised the consciousness of people."

A plan for 'Smart Growth'

While Glendening has offered the legislature five bills related to land preservation this year, the key proposal is a "Smart Growth" plan. It would establish growth areas where state money for such basics as roads, sewer and water lines, economic development incentives and some housing programs could be spent.

The goal is to revitalize old neighborhoods and slow rural development. Local governments would not be forced to comply with the governor's plan -- but they would risk millions of dollars in state aid if they didn't.

Much of the bill's intent could have been accomplished by executive order, bypassing the General Assembly. But aides say the governor wanted a statewide consensus behind the effort.

It was, they reasoned, the lack of broad support that doomed Gov. William Donald Schaefer's first foray into the issue, the ambitious "2020" proposal of six years ago that was summarily rejected by lawmakers. A greatly weakened version passed one year later.

Enter Young, a former elementary school teacher, grocery store clerk, one-time pool hustler (to pay his way through college) and restaurateur who was Frederick's mayor from 1973 to 1989. Last summer, he was made deputy director of the state planning office with one full-time obligation: to build an anti-sprawl consensus.

Since then, the amiable politician has met with more than 100 small groups, including homebuilders and environmentalists, city council members and civic groups. His pitch is simple, low-key, direct -- and he can comfortably use the words "farther-est" and "transferable development rights" in the same sentence.

His central message: Reform the way Maryland is growing or lose a half-million acres of farm and forest (roughly equivalent in size to Baltimore and Baltimore County combined) by 2020.

"I tell people that this is not the solution; this is the first step we must take," said Young. "People have to understand how they contribute to the problem. They need to know the effect they are having."

In a meeting of the Howard County Citizens Association last week, Young framed the problem with one basic assumption. Maryland expects to grow by more than 1 million people in the next 23 years, while another 500,000 are expected to move from existing towns and suburbs to the outer ring of suburbs.

If current development trends continue, huge tracts of open space would be lost. But it also would mean a loss of older neighborhoods -- and a burden on taxpayers who would have to pay millions, perhaps billions more to provide services to these new suburbs.

"The way we're growing costs money," Young tells the 17 people in attendance. "It wouldn't cost so much if we grew smarter."

Speaking from experience

When Young talks about the joys of living close to neighbors, he speaks from experience. He and three siblings grew up on Market Street, Frederick's downtown thoroughfare, under the care of a mother who usually held two or three jobs at a time.

"We couldn't get in trouble if we wanted to," recalled Young, 58, a married father of five. "Everybody knew everybody in the neighborhood."

As mayor, Young encouraged downtown preservation and saw the value of historic district townhouses skyrocket. During his tenure, Frederick grew through annexation and nearly doubled in population.

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