Smart Growth isn't smart

October 13, 1997|By Frieda Campbell

I BEGAN looking into Maryland's Smart Growth plan only when the national press was reporting that Portland, Oregon, the world's crown jewel of growth planning (and my home town), is experiencing an intolerable overgrowth of its "urban growth boundary," beyond which development is severely limited.

In the 20 years since Portland's growth boundary was set, the population has increased by 700,000. Almost every available acre of land has been developed. Housing prices have doubled in just five years.

Property prices inside and outside the growth boundary are worlds apart. Much land cannot be sold at any price because of zoning prohibitions on building.

Roads are miserably gridlocked. The Portland metropolitan regional government has been unable to fund $2.1 billion worth of needed new roads with a budget figured in the millions.

Worse yet, nasty class skirmishes are fought regularly over the contention that neighborhoods of the wealthy and politically powerful are free from planning-related density and other mandates.

It's not surprising that these problems have motivated plans for a voter referendum under the state constitution next year to decide whether or not to simply scrap Portland's entire growth-limiting apparatus.

John Charles, environmental director for Portland's Cascade Policy Institute, a free-market think tank, was for 17 years a leader in Oregon's "green" environmental movement. His conversion was gradual, and based in part on what he saw in the Portland growth-limiting zoning.

He claims that Portland's problem with growth-limiting zoning were very predictable because such zoning forces the government to plan the economy, which is impossible. And while zoning creates an illusion of certainty, the reality is zoning through "variances" or "exceptions" to the zones, a favorite loophole of the politically connected.

Meaningless concept

The sprawl that Smart Growth seeks to eradicate is, according to Mr. Charles, a meaningless concept that can't be defined. Efforts to implement this meaningless concept are responsible for creating a population of winners and losers, depending upon where boundaries are arbitrarily drawn.

Although the views of Maryland's state legislators differ on the potential effects of various Smart Growth initiatives, there is one thing on which they agree: Smart Growth was born out of political necessity. It was needed to give Gov. Parris N. Glendening a "win" in the 1997 legislative session.

Maryland legislators were hesitant to predict the specific effects of Smart Growth over the long haul. This is because the plans are predicated on things that are not known, and can't be known.

But these projections seem likely: There will be excessive escalation of housing prices; there will be winners and losers; and traffic congestion will worsen.

Robert Nelson, professor of environmental policy at the University of Maryland, College Park, states: "Smart Growth is essentially a no-growth policy in disguise," because it forces growth into already congested areas. He also sees Smart Growth, like Portland's plan, as a formula for class warfare.

Top-down zoning schemes are destined to fail for the same reasons that all large-scale central planning programs have failed. Zoning is bureaucratic, inflexible and inequitable. It requires decision-makers to analyze far more information than is humanly possible.

Because zoning ordinances ignore markets and minimize the role of property rights, they put elected officials in the position of having to pick winners and losers in the economy.

High-density zoning schemes such as Smart Growth make bad traffic congestion even worse. They increase public infrastructure costs. They perpetuate the so-called "affordable housing crisis." Smart Growth is the problem, not the solution.

To identify the winners and losers of the new Maryland system will take time. For now, the one certain winner with Smart Growth is the governor.

Frieda Campbell is a Bethesda economist and writer.

Pub Date: 10/13/97

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