Myths about 'smart growth'

March 29, 1997|By Andrew Ratner

"SHOW ME the money,'' it isn't. But as new phrases go, ''smart growth'' has caught on in Maryland to an extent that should cheer Parris Glendening.

Before the governor coined the term a year ago to define his plan to check suburban sprawl, a reader of The Sun was more apt to find those two words in Julius Westheimer columns on investments or an occasional feature on new cures for hair loss.

That a lot of folks are discussing ''smart growth'' in Annapolis and beyond is in itself a victory for the governor, although he would like the General Assembly to approve his legislation, too.

His bill would require the state to consider land-use patterns when deciding whether to invest in a new road, school or other infrastructure. The concept is wise, but the issue is more complicated than proponents often acknowledge.

Myth 1: The public embraces ''smart growth.''

The Conservation Fund, a national group, released a poll that it says proves the public's support for smart growth. Nine out of 10 respondents favored such things as public park investments and protecting water quality.

The release failed to mention that 91 percent like apple pie and 97 percent love ''mom,'' too.

A more telling survey came from the University of Baltimore's Schaefer Center for Public Policy.

Though most people favored ''smart growth,'' two-thirds oppose greater density in housing, a linchpin of the plan. In other words, folks like ''smart growth'' -- for the other guy. They cherish the bay and woodlands, but like big backyards and cul de sacs, too.

Myth 2: Most homes don't generate tax revenue to pay for the services they use.

This oft-cited ''truth'' is as silly as asking someone to put a price on which finger he considers most valuable. Homes don't exist alone unto themselves.

As a recent story on ''job sprawl'' noted, businesses follow growth. Retailers want to be where shoppers are, employers want to be near skilled labor.

Myth 3: Don't build the roads, they won't come.

Not so simple. The improvements to Interstate 95 that aided Harford's residential growth also helped attract 3,500 jobs in the distribution industry. Trucks and bedroom commuters use the same roads.

Myth 4: Downfall of the cities caused sprawl.

A half-truth: The inability of Maryland's original suburbs -- Prince George's, Montgomery and Baltimore counties -- to provide ample, affordable and attractive housing helped push the middle class farther into the countryside.

But the outer counties could fall into the same trap. Harford Superintendent Jeffery Grotsky raised eyebrows when he was quoted as saying that county's ''growth envelope'' didn't need a high school and perhaps wouldn't get a middle school even though a half-dozen elementaries in the area are overcapacity, some just a few years old -- with more housing on the way. Falling behind on schools put the urban core in this pickle.

MCI President Timothy Price, in Baltimore last week, spoke about his company's challenge in the 1980s to wean people off ''Ma Bell.'' MCI eventually deduced that those most apt to switch were also those most willing to try out an automated teller machine.

Just as more and more people are banking and communicating in ways unimaginable before, the places they choose to live will be altered by new technology, by demographics (as the baby boomers become ''empty nesters'') and by government actions such as this proposal.

Without things to help move buyer behavior and attitudes, ''smart growth'' can go back to describing baldness remedies.

Andrew Ratner is director of zoned editorials for The Sun.

Pub Date: 3/29/97

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