Smart Growth repeats failed social experimentsIn two...


June 13, 1999

Smart Growth repeats failed social experiments

In two recent pieces in The Sun, a college professor and a professional planner sang the praises of Smart Growth, a new name for an old way the government attempts to control what it sees as suburban sprawl. More recently, The Sun editorialized on what is and isn't Smart Growth (June 9).

Smart Growth is appealing. You discourage growth in more rural areas and thereby encourage restoration of existing neighborhoods and communities. You make better use of resources and tax dollars, and you go easier on the environment. It is a popular concept because it has a little something for everyone.

The problem with Smart Growth is not dissimilar to the problems we had with its forebears: urban renewal, community development block grants and dozens of other social engineering experiments of the 1960s and '70s. Most of those experiments failed initially because it was soon discovered that government -- any government -- couldn't manage the scale of change bening attempted. The professional planners and the politicians who dreamed up those engineering feats, weren't smart enough to make them work and instead of saving the taxpayers millions, they cost taxpayers billions.

Good came of the experiments eventually, but it took the nation 20 years to figure out what went wrong and summon the political courage to change it.

Now, it seems, we're at it again, using government bureaucracy as a shoehorn to cram us into one-size-fits all lifestyles.

A case in point: The big foot of Smart Growth has been planted squarely on the 160-year-old rural community of Davidsonville in Anne Arundel County.

Davidsonville has been growing at a quick pace for the past 30 years because it offers serenity, low crime, clean air and nice people. Davidsonville Elementary School, however, is also 30 years old, outmoded and overcrowded.

The heating and plumbing are shot. There is no air conditioning. The parking lot and driveways present traffic hazards, many children are in portable classrooms and most importantly, it was built for 394 students and now houses 543.

After years of discussions and parental activism, the Anne Arundel County Board of Education, the current and former county executives, the County Council, state legislative delegation and a number of other civic groups and organizations all ratified a plan for a new school with a 600-student capacity.

Funds were appropriated. Architects were hired. Everything was fine until an appointee of the governor stepped in and declared the school plan null and void.

He said it violated the governor's Smart Growth plan.

He said the school would be renovated to house only 447 students, and the leftover children would be bused to other schools in the county, where, as it turns out, there's no room for them, either.

This all came as a great surprise to Davidsonville residents who supported Smart Growth and legislators from the area who had voted for it.

Davidsonville is now caught in a Catch-22. The county Planning and Code Enforcement agency just approved 84 new lots. New homes are going up up all over the area. The state has done nothing to stop construction on anything but the school, leaving the children with the prospect of more overcrowded classrooms, worse traffic congestion and some very upset parents.

The state has since conceded that its decision may have been based on faulty population projections it got from the school board. The school board says it gave the state the only numbers it had available, the same ones it used to approve the school project. Both statements are accurate, but both hide the truth, and none of the finger-pointing has resolved anything.

The truth is the state simply didn't have the wherewithal to make informed decisions. But, it went ahead anyway, micromanaging the local community in the name of Smart Growth. The college professor and professional planner will tell you that Davidsonville and its kids are just casualties of the war against sprawl, and that these kinds of glitches must not deter them from achieving a greater good. That was the rational 30 years ago, too.

It didn't work then and it won't work now, particularly now that we are a bit more enlightened and understand that you don't change human behavior by dictatorial and unilateral government mandate, especially on a society descended from cantankerous rebels.

The Sun has not covered the Davidsonville situation. It should. The Smart Growth issues are complex and deserve a closer look before a good idea goes sour. There will be other Davidsonvilles in Maryland and across the country until the lessons of a generation ago are learned again. And the quicker the better for the children.

Mike Johnson


The writer is a senior vice president of APCO Associates in Washington. His wife, Tricia, is president of the Davidsonville Elementary School PTA.

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