Making Smart Growth happen

ON THE BAY

Plans: Maryland's anti-sprawl legislation, while a laudable initiative, contains enough loopholes to make its prospects for success difficult to predict.

February 12, 1999|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

GOV. PARRIS N. Glendening, flush with a larger-than-expected re-election vote, clearly plans to make Smart Growth a major part of his legacy -- as well as an issue he can ride to higher political office in the future.

In December, the governor made four speeches in three states in five days, championing his Smart Growth strategy's twin tenets: stopping the sprawling development that is so voracious of open space, and refocusing growth to revitalize towns, cities and older suburbs.

One should only applaud the governor for using his bully pulpit and for seizing the leading edge of what is fast catching fire nationally.

Citizens and politicians everywhere are making the link between sprawl and irresolvable traffic congestion, air pollution, and loss of farms, wildlife habitat and green spaces integral to every community's quality of life.

But the prospects of actually making Smart Growth happen in Maryland might be largely illusory. The reasons are convincingly detailed in a recent analysis by Baltimore's Abell Foundation.

The short "white paper" examines the package of Smart Growth bills enacted by the legislature in 1997, particularly the Smart Growth Areas Act.

This law aims for state spending on roads, schools and other big capital projects that serve growth to be focused in "priority growth areas" in each county -- toward existing and well-planned population centers, and away from the open countryside.

This is key to making Smart Growth work. It is "innovative" and "significantly advances the art of growth management," acknowledges the Abell paper, written by Douglas Porter of the Growth Management Institute in Chevy Chase.

And the governor works it for all it's worth, as in a recent Smart Growth speech in Atlanta:

"For development projects outside of those [priority growth] areas we are saying, `Sorry, the state will not help out!' If you are building out there and tear up one more farm, then you pay for roads, water and sewerage, schools, parks and other development costs. If you invest in our existing communities, then you will avoid those costs."

The legislation underpinning those strong words was compromised within an inch of being meaningless before passage -- for that, thank the leadership of the House of Delegates, its Environmental Matters Committee and lobbying by the Maryland Association of Counties.

As the Abell report details, the watered-down law pretty much lets each county determine the size and shape of its "priority growth" area, and sets no real standards for how efficiently those areas should grow.

Howard County, the report notes, has effectively designated half of the county as eligible for state Smart Growth spending.

The final version of the legislation also removed all meaningful oversight by the state of county growth-area designations.

Neither does the legislation tie local land-use plans outside of priority growth areas to Smart Growth or other anti-sprawl objectives.

So you have counties such as Wicomico, Carroll, Garrett, Charles and St. Mary's not dealing well at all with sprawl, even as Maryland gets lots of national press as a "Smart Growth leader."

The Smart Growth legislation also allows a generous assortment of loopholes and exceptions to let state infrastructure money be spent outside desired growth areas. For example:

Schools can be built to serve needs generated by unplanned sprawl, though under Glendening, spending to date has favored existing schools over new ones.

Transportation projects may be approved to serve sprawl without meeting any particular criteria; nor are real limits imposed on where new industry can be located.

How well state money is targeted to discourage sprawl is highly dependent on who is governor, and who is on the Board of Public Works, which approves large capital projects.

The Abell report also faults Maryland's Smart Growth legislation for being weak in two other key areas: requiring resident participation and setting measurable criteria by which a county's progress toward ending sprawl can be measured.

This is unfortunate, because Maryland's Office of Planning has done a good job in generating the kinds of land-use data and growth management guidelines that residents or public interest groups could use to pressure towns and counties to follow Smart Growth principles.

Abell commissioned the report "because Smart Growth after the legislation passed had sort of gone off the agenda -- people think it was a success," says Robert C. Embry, the foundation's president.

Reading the report (call 410-547-1300 for copies) will not make you optimistic, and in the short term it shouldn't. But I have some optimism that Smart Growth will outlast Glendening, and improve.

It's clear that traffic congestion, higher taxes, losses of open space and the deterioration of older communities are only going to get worse under current development trends.

But a solid Smart Growth coalition has formed among state environmental groups. Also, Maryland is hardly alone in embracing smarter growth -- and maybe not even a leader for long as such unlikely places as Tennessee and Austin, Texas, adopt tough anti-sprawl initiatives.

The Abell report contains several recommendations for strengthening Maryland's legislation and making local government more accountable for Smart Growth. It also cautions:

"Even if all the exceptions are removed and loopholes closed, Smart Growth policies are designed to take Maryland only so far. They do not fundamentally alter the way planning for growth is accomplished."

Pub Date: 2/12/99

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