Better planning can halt wild sprawl

Local government: Studies show counties need to use their zoning powers to promote wiser land use.

October 13, 2001

NOT surprisingly, the state's much bruited Smart Growth program hasn't slammed the brakes on suburban sprawl.

It has made local governments and planners think twice about approving new housing developments that leapfrog into rural areas. And the state has shown that it won't pay for roads, sewers and schools that promote sprawl.

But the authority for most land-use decisions lies with the counties - in their elected officials and in their planning and zoning laws. And Baltimore metro counties have been largely ineffective in restraining subdivisions outside the designated Smart Growth areas, according to studies by two environmental organizations.

Nearly one-fourth of the houses planned for the Baltimore region over the next 20 years will be outside the growth areas designated by the counties under the 1997 law. That could lead to a loss of some 80,000 acres of farms and forests in the five suburban counties.

Using state and local planning records, companion reports by the Baltimore Regional Partnership and 1000 Friends of Maryland concluded that most counties are failing to curb costly, wasteful sprawl. This despite the assertive state program to conserve open space and focus future growth in established development areas.

Only Baltimore County got high marks from the groups for its efforts at rural preservation under the county's 22-year-old master plan. Yet that county lost nearly a quarter of its farmland to development in 16 years under that master plan, by the report's findings.

Carroll County was roundly criticized for its lack of Smart Growth measures, yet the county lost only 9 percent of its farmland in the same time period. And Carroll is a nationally recognized leader in protecting farmland.

Howard County was praised for affordable housing policies that promote clustered development, yet faulted for zoning that hinders effective farm preservation.

The point is that each suburban county has a different development history, different rates of growth, different character. Cookie-cutter rules and policies just won't work. Furthermore, laws that protect rural lands don't necessarily promote clustered, urbanized Smart Growth.

The challenge is for all counties to work harder, in their own ways, toward wiser land use. That saves not only irreplaceable open space but significant tax dollars otherwise needed to serve the demands of costly sprawl.

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