Freedom can be limited by unrestricted growth

ON THE BAY

Cities: Atlanta and Portland, Ore., offer contrasting glimpses of how sprawl can affect residents' way of life.

July 07, 2000|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

WITH INDEPENDENCE Day celebrations still ringing in our ears, it seems timely to write about freedom and how setting limits can sometimes be the best way to preserve it.

Those who would preserve the option to develop every available acre of farmland and forest in Maryland often swaddle themselves in freedom - every individual's right to an affordable house on a grassy plot in a suburbia that knows no outer limits.

But where does that lead? Atlanta has seen the future and is back-tracking hard. For more than a decade, the Georgia metropolis pursued the right to live and build how and where anyone wanted with a zeal unmatched, perhaps, in the history of the world.

The city sprawled from a metro area about 60 miles long to one about 120 miles long. Job growth boomed, up 37 percent, and incomes rose a healthy 60 percent.

But property taxes, driven by the high costs of supporting ill-planned sprawl development, rose 22 percent. The miles an average citizen drove to work and shop rose 17 percent.

And all that driving caused air quality to deteriorate - enough that the Environmental Protection Agency suspended about $500 million a year in federal highway money for Georgia the past two years.

It caused enough gridlock that Hewlett Packard delayed a 20-story office building project, saying it was getting hard to attract to Atlanta the high-tech talent it needed.

Now look at the future again, this time in Oregon, the epitome of a place that controls where growth occurs. Portland and other Oregon cities have urban growth boundaries that strictly limit sprawl. "You can tell when you leave town" is a common observation by visitors.

Oregon zones about 40,000 square miles of farmland and forests so strictly that since 1987, 4,070 acres of farms, 0.2 percent of the state's total, have been rezoned for development.

Metropolitan Portland, where about 45 percent of Oregonians live, has had population growth, job growth and income growth roughly comparable to Atlanta's during the past decade or so.

But unlike Atlanta, the city that limits "freedom" has seen property taxes fall 29 percent, commute times for motorists decrease 9 percent and the number of days that violate federal clean air standards fall 86 percent.

Housing prices in Portland did jump 62 percent vs. about 20 percent in Atlanta, in absolute dollar terms. But as a percentage of income, housing prices in the two areas rose about the same. Housing in Portland is relatively inexpensive for a West Coast city.

Often overlooked, too, is the fairness Oregon has brought to development, says Robert Liberty, director of 1,000 Friends of Oregon, one of the nation's original watchdog groups for better land use (spinoffs are in about 30 states, including Maryland).

Zoning within Oregon's growth boundaries, Liberty says, must include the full range of housing, from mobile homes and multifamily dwellings to upscale mansions.

It is all about offering people a real choice in housing types, he points out, as opposed to the illusory freedom of choice that results mostly in single homes on large lots.

With the traditional nuclear family of parents and kids making up only a quarter of American households now, the demand for alternatives to single homes with big yards is growing.

As for Georgia, it has headed in the last year toward a sweeping reform in its anything-goes tradition of development.

Gov. Roy Barnes won passage last year of a new regional level of government with veto power over land-use and transportation decisions in Atlanta and surrounding counties.

It's anything but anti-growth, Barnes says. "If we don't do something, growth is going to stop," he told Governing magazine last year.

You can read about the struggles of Georgia, Oregon and other states to manage growth in a new report by the National Governors' Association in Washington: "Growing Pains, Quality of Life in the New Economy."

Quality of life concerns, which deterred Hewlett Packard in Georgia, are a growing issue, according to Joel Hirschhorn, the report's author.

As for Maryland, its situation with growth is neither as bad as Atlanta's nor as managed as Oregon's. Gov. Parris N. Glendening has made the state a national leader in Smart Growth, using state budget powers to promote growth in and around existing population centers and to discourage it in the countryside. As the new chairman of the National Governors' Association, Glendening will push his programs harder.

Despite all this and despite some very good programs to preserve farms and open space, far too much sprawl continues to occur in Maryland.

Too many counties, where the land-use authority resides, along with the politically influential Maryland Association of Counties (MACO), mistake limits on growth for limits on freedom and choice.

But as the "Growing Pains" report makes amply clear: "It is the loss of quality of life that threatens future growth and prosperity."

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