Time to enlist new forces to fight sprawl

October 02, 2002|By George Liebmann

SMART GROWTH, as practiced in Maryland, has reached its limits. There are now some controls over state support of sprawl. But the major facilities controlled by Smart Growth are new schools, and here the record is mixed.

Eighty percent of the state school construction program is devoted to new buildings,[rgr: cq: ] and the program has grown tenfold since the end of Gov. Harry Hughes' administration in 1987.[rgr: cq: ] The state payment for each new building relieves counties of the financial consequences of the sprawl they permit. So the state subsidizes sprawl with one hand while seeking to prevent it with the other.

A major weakness is that the program ignores the private sector. In fact, sprawl cannot be constrained unless development in populated areas is made easier.

One way to do this is by allowing owners on a city block to organize to buy out dissenters who are not owner-occupiers, an approach widely followed in the Far East and in Europe.

This approach, called "land pooling" or "land readjustment," can be cheaper and easier than urban renewal by government. [rgr: cq: ]

Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley's administration flirted with this idea, but backed off because of the uproar over state Senate Bill 509, which proposed taking houses in Middle River nearly two years ago.[rgr: cq: ] But land readjustment in the inner city should be less controversial.

Knee-jerk hostility to road improvements is also no way to constrain sprawl. People move to rural areas to escape congestion and to gain greater control over their immediate environment. The way to combat this tendency is to relieve the causes of congestion.

An effective Smart Growth program would seek to minimize curb cuts into existing state roads by requiring the use of parallel service driveways so that new roads don't become congested by traffic entering every few feet, as on the Ritchie Highway. It would also publish hour-by-hour traffic counts and allow counties to introduce time-of-day charging -- imposing higher tolls at the height of rush hours in order to spread out traffic on the most seriously congested roads.

The technology for this -- the E-Z Passes used to collect regular tolls on some Maryland bridges and tunnels, such as the Harbor Tunnel and Key Bridge, and systems used in other states and several foreign countries -- is inexpensive. It has been adapted to time-of-day charging in Norway and Singapore, for example.

It is political will that has been lacking, although charging schemes can be made palatable by using them initially to reduce auto registration costs or gasoline taxes in the affected counties. As vehicles grow more fuel-efficient, time-of-day charging would be needed to supplement the declining yields of gasoline taxes.

Similarly, nothing has been done to liberalize local zoning so that homeowners do not need to drive five miles to buy a bottle of milk, or to deregulate mass transit to make it easier to start new taxi, van and bus services.

Those who live in older neighborhoods have been given no means to control their immediate environment similar to the residential community associations that render new developments in the suburbs attractive.

Land-wasting setback and road-width regulations remain in effect. The state gives large tax concessions to farmland and pays large sums for conservation easements through the Maryland Environmental Trust and other agencies without acquiring any rights of public access or rights of way for footpaths in return.

A bottle deposit law could help contain roadside litter. Several states have recently overcome the reasonable objections of retailers to the additional storage and trucking required by such laws by allowing bottles to be redeemed at centralized redemption centers.

There is the possibility for what might be called free-market environmentalism. Developers and localities should be made to bear the cost of new infrastructure. The state should cease making gifts of curb cuts and should provide motorists with better information and, if necessary, use tolls to smooth out the use of roads.

Developers should be permitted, subject to public controls, to organize cooperative land-pooling associations. Beverage and other industries should be required to provide incentives and facilities for disposal of the wastes they generate.

The thousand or so people who live in each election precinct should be able to impose modest tax surcharges or receive modest grants to provide community rooms, bus shelters, crime prevention cameras or speed bumps. Rural landowners being paid for easements should be asked for footpaths in return.

After eight years of a centralized, bureaucratic approach to land conservation, it's time to see what methods involving neighbors and the private sector can do to alter the incentives that create sprawl.

George Liebmann is a Baltimore lawyer. He was a Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate in 1998.

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