Bringing up Smart Growth

March 23, 2000|By Melanie Anson

DECADES BEFORE Smart Growth became a buzzword, Baltimore County was in the vanguard when it devised its "urban rural demarcation line" or URDL, and decided to promote development inside the URDL while restricting development and preserving open space outside the line.

Thanks to this foresight, thousands of acres of farmland and pristine beauty outside the URDL have been preserved. By that measure, the concept--now subsumed under Smart Growth--has been a success. And if that were the whole picture, the applause would be deafening. But the flip side of Smart Growth in Baltimore County is the mess created by unfettered overdevelopment inside the URDL, home to 90 percent of the county's population.

Drive along Reisterstown Road, York Road, Liberty Road and other arterials -- and not just during peak traffic times. Traffic gridlock has become a near-permanent condition, the by-product of overdevelopment. Established neighborhoods are burdened disproportionately, as large numbers of commuters use local streets as cut-throughs to avoid congestion on main roads.

The ambiance along most of the county's primary corridors can be described, at best, as "aesthetically deprived." Except for rare jewels like old Reisterstown, where charm has been preserved by the tasteful conversion of old homes to small retail stores, much of the view is typical suburban clutter. Good housing stock in many older areas of the county sits vacant, while new homes are being built at breakneck speed, devouring the little open space remaining. Despite an increasing number of failing intersections and a chorus of citizen complaints, rampant development inside the URDL continues to be sanctioned under the guise of Smart Growth.

Baltimore County must move Smart Growth to a higher level of planning and sophistication. It can no longer afford the simplistic notion that it can draw boundaries and allow developers a free pass so long as they stay inside the lines. In a few years, the advantages of Smart Growth in Baltimore County will benefit only the wealthy and the 10 percent who live outside the URDL. At the current pace of new development, they soon will be the sole recipients of the coveted social and environmental amenities that contribute to "quality of life."

No county can dictate where people will live just by drawing lines on paper. People are attracted to the most appealing areas they can afford, leaving those of more limited financial means to cope with areas devoid of charm or made less desirable by benign neglect and overdevelopment.

There is only one way for the county to win the Smart Growth battle, and that is by making existing and older communities, and the business areas serving them, more -- not less -- attractive and desirable. The county is creating serious long-term problems inside the URDL by giving new development a green light, which, in turn, ensures the permanent loss of green space, further clogs roads, attracts home purchasers away from older housing stock, and exacerbates problems in the county's already struggling older business districts. Money for streetscapes, spot revitalization and rural legacy programs helps, but older areas need far more, including:

Financial incentives to make the rehabilitation of existing housing stock a more attractive investment than new development.

Traffic calming to make community roads safer.

Procedures to bar any development that would overburden existing roadways and communities.

Design guidelines and requirements to ensure a "fit" between any proposed new or in-fill development and the existing neighborhood.

Land-use trusts, easements and tax incentives to preserve smaller parcels of green space and make it financially feasible not to develop every undeveloped parcel within the URDL.

Pursuing such a path lacks the glamour and glitz of new development, but it is the only cost-efficient and smart solution. Without this major change in direction, there will be growing and intensified pressure to develop the land that has been saved outside the URDL. The clock is ticking. It is time for Baltimore County to wake up and for Smart Growth to grow up.

Melanie Anson is a free-lance writer with an interest in urban planning and historic preservation.

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