Few smarts on sprawl

On The Bay

Report: Few counties have tried hard to make Smart Growth work, says an analysis by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and 1,000 Friends of Maryland.

January 14, 2000|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

IT WILL SOON BE THREE years since Maryland's legislature passed Smart Growth legislation to combat sprawl by refocusing development around developed areas.

How much smarter have we become?

The bad news is that the bulk of the state's 23 counties, where land-use decisions are made, have done the minimum.

The law was weak and vague regarding county responsibilities, despite the efforts of environ- mentalists and Gov. Parris N. Glendening. It was decades of unwillingness to manage growth that led to a state-level law.

FOR THE RECORD - A Jan. 14 column by Tom Horton incorrectly referred to the Baltimore Metropolitan Council as the Baltimore Metropolitan Commission. The column also attributed to the council the use of "outdated air quality numbers" in making transportation planning decisions. In fact, those decisions were made by the state's Transportation Steering Committee, a larger group that includes the BMC as a member.
The Sun regrets the error.

A recent analysis, "Making Smart Growth Smarter" by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and 1,000 Friends of Maryland, credits only Baltimore and Prince George's counties with "high" effort to make the law work.

The report says Anne Arundel, Carroll, Cecil, Frederick, Garrett, Harford and Montgomery counties made "moderate" efforts.

Ten counties made "low" efforts, and four elected to make no changes to their growth plans.

While Maryland has not turned the corner on sprawl, the report's authors see good news -- and a critical opportunity in the new legislative session.

"A sea change has occurred in the public's attitude about growth," they write. "There is now widespread recognition that sprawl damages the environment as well as the economic and social well-being of Maryland and its citizens."

Across the country, politicians have stopped scoffing at Al Gore for making traffic congestion and other "livability" factors part of a presidential campaign.

At the heart of any hope for Smart Growth is how much of Maryland's transportation billions will go for more roads that encourage more sprawl -- which encourages more traffic congestion and more roads.

Average speeds on the Washington Beltway have dropped from 47 to 23 mph in the past two decades.

Around Baltimore, spending $16 billion in the next 20 years will only mean congestion worsens at a slower pace, according to the region's transportation plan.

To the extent the Smart Growth law has teeth, they come from the power it gives the state to focus spending on existing communities, and not spending where it encourages expansion into farmland and forests.

That encompasses everything from school construction to tax incentives for businesses that locate near residences.

But 90 percent of the billion-plus dollars a year in such state spending is transportation. "Smart growth cannot succeed without smart transportation," the report says.

A vital war, little noticed, is being waged to make this happen.

The Bay Foundation and 1,000 Friends -- with the Baltimore Urban League, the Environmental Defense Fund and the Citizens Planning and Housing Association -- are trying to reform the state's egregious transportation planning process. They have petitioned the federal Department of Transportation to decertify the official regional transportation planning group, known as the Baltimore Metropolitan Commission.

In its most recent 20-year transportation plan -- the one that would spend $16 billion to have traffic get worse -- the commission stated:

"This is the second plan that cannot address adequately" the impacts on growth and development.

Such impacts wouldn't be addressed, it said, "until local officials desire it to be done."

That conveniently ignored that it is "local officials," the mayor and the county executives, who appoint the commission.

The commission also recently tried to get away with using outdated air-quality data to allow more highway projects. The threat of losing federal money has forced it to use current data.

The coalition of environmental and citizens' groups has won federal review of the commission's certification as the region's official transportation planning group.

"What we really want is to get them to do their job," says Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of 1,000 Friends, formed in 1998 to support Smart Growth.

Currently, she says, transportation planning is too biased toward roads, as opposed to bikes, pedestrians and mass transit.

Neither does it take into account the impact of roads on sprawl, allow for meaningful public participation, or plan to benefit the region instead of "stapling together each county's transportation desires," she said.

Reforming transportation planning is more critical for Smart Growth in light of a governor's commission that is recommending nearly doubling transportation spending in the next 20 years to alleviate congestion.

"The legislature looks like it is going to take that recommendation seriously," says George Maurer, a senior planner at the bay foundation.

Maurer says it will be critical to Smart Growth to ensure the added transportation dollars enhance developed areas, as opposed to encouraging sprawl.

"Making Smart Growth Smarter" is a good guide for anyone who wants to hold his county to the task of preserving its environment.

For copies, write 1000 Friends of Maryland, 1209 N. Calvert St., Baltimore 21202; or Chesapeake Bay Foundation, 111 Annapolis St., Annapolis 21401.

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