Smart Growth isn't enough Stronger action is needed to halt suburban sprawl

April 13, 1997|By Donald F. Norris

The Smart Growth bill recently passed by the legislature will target hundreds of millions of dollars in state money for use in designated growth areas. It is a move toward sanity, but much stronger action is necessary if Maryland is serious about discouraging suburban sprawl.

Although the Smart Growth legislation will direct state funding for such things as water, sewer and roads toward already developed areas, it has two critical, if not fatal, weaknesses. It does nothing to limit the power of local governments to regulate development and it does not give state government a meaningful role in managing growth. Both are particularly serious weaknesses because local governments are among the principal causes of sprawl.

Of course, as the history of the Smart Growth legislation clearly demonstrates, had it contained provisions to limit local government powers and to give the state real power over local development, it would have gone down in defeat. As it was, the governor's rather modest plan was weakened during the legislative process.

Why is it so difficult to get effective Smart Growth legislation adopted?

There are two obstacles: opposition from local governments and opposition from politicians who pander to developers and the rTC public. These factors also help to explain why we have so much sprawl today in Maryland and why we will have more in the future, notwithstanding the Smart Growth legislation.

The residents of Maryland must love sprawl. We have so very much of it. And we continue to create more by moving ever further into rural areas making them suburbs. But, the same folks who demand services and complain about traffic County.congestion after moving to suburbia don't seem to want anything done to control sprawl. In fact, they vote against local officials who advocate growth control and against state legislators who might support limiting local government powers over development. This is one of the main reasons why stronger state legislation has not been adopted. Local residents will not have it, and their elected representatives know it and act accordingly. Of course, developers do not want growth control either.

Meanwhile, local governments seek to satisfy the relatively narrow interests of their residents, not the broader interests or general good of the entire state. No single jurisdiction, for example, can or will act to protect the Chesapeake Bay. Only state government can do it because it represents all of us and not just the narrow interests of residents in a particular area.

Under current state law, each of Maryland's 23 counties and Baltimore City has virtually total control over development within its borders. Local governments control development by exercising their powers of planning and zoning. What is more, they need not consider the negative impacts that developments in their jurisdictions will have on their neighbors or on the environment. Will a development increase traffic, storm water runoff, air or water pollution, or crime? Will it increase the cost of providing public services? Moreover, if development produces problems, the jurisdictions have no obligation to mitigate them or to compensate their neighbors.

Another important reason for sprawl is our system of local property taxation. This system encourages - some might say demands - that local officials do their utmost to attract development, especially commerce, industry and upscale housing, to enhance the local property tax base. Otherwise, public services suffer. Ironically, many of these services are needed because of the very growth that the local governments have been hell-bent to attract. The property taxes on a $300,000 Howard County home doesn't cover its share of services. And, after several years of high growth, Carroll County had to increase its property tax rate substantially.

Opinion polls regularly show that the public favors protecting the environment and lowering the cost of government. Yet, public behavior runs in the opposite direction. The unmistakable trend over the last 50 or more years has been for people and businesses to continue to move to the suburbs, creating sprawl and more sprawl.

Suburban sprawl is not a problem in Britain, so perhaps we should look there to find a solution.

In 1947, the British Parliament adopted the Town and Country Planning Act. This act established a policy of urban containment. The policy is strongly supported by all three major political parties, the Parliament, and the majority of local government officials and ordinary citizens.

If a development is proposed for areas set aside for green space or agriculture - that is outside of urban development zones - opposition occurs from nearly every major player in society, especially from the local governments.

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