Smart growth, dumb debate Sprawl showdown: Legislation was never to slam door on growth, just help reverse trends.

April 05, 1997

THE "SMART GROWTH" legislation that may emerge from the General Assembly -- "may" being the operative word -- won't look dramatically different from the concept Gov. Parris N. Glendening mapped for his crusade against suburban sprawl months ago.

Last-minute wrangling over whether the state should try to block a new factory in a sparsely populated rural area, or a trailer park with water but no sewer service, distorts the point of "Smart Growth."

The governor's initiative was never about slamming the door on growth. The idea was to encourage more concentrated development, and less sprawl, with the help of state aid. Any administration that backs completion of Route 32 in Howard County to meet up with Interstate 70, for example, is not fixated on thwarting future development.

This bill got out of the station late. Then, the debate kept veering off-track, as environmentalists struggled to frame the issue into another us-against-them, state-against-local fight. That was a distortion of reality. The legislation drafted by the Maryland Office of Planning specifically mentions the counties' support for the governor's strategy, through their own local creation of "town centers" and programs to encourage home-ownership and businesses in older neighborhoods.

Maryland has not succeeded in slowing sprawl. No older, eastern state has. The outward flight of the middle-class and businesses is a national problem, larger than any one governor or legislature.

The governor's bill doesn't accomplish much that Mr. Glendening couldn't achieve through an executive order. He's already done so by mandating that more money be spent on older school renovations than on new school construction. Now the governor wants to shift state emphasis in other types of spending as a way to make older communities more competitive with outlying subdivisions in the minds of homebuyers and businessmen.

His bill is more akin to a chief executive officer's "mission statement," an outline for the corporation's long-term health. Unfortunately, a greater understanding of sprawl and its costs has been lost in a protracted battle of words and will. In Annapolis, two sides argue over how many locks to install on the barn door as more horses flee over the hill.

! Pub Date: 4/05/97

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