Smart Growth II

October 16, 2003

GOV. ROBERT L. Ehrlich Jr. waited months before essentially reaffirming last week his predecessor's signature effort to control sprawl by directing growth to developed areas. He gave his approach a new name -- "Priority Places," instead of "Smart Growth." And he declared he'd cooperate with local jurisdictions, not threaten them as former Gov. Parris N. Glendening was often accused of doing.

On paper, all this is laudable and certainly far better than the worst fears of Maryland's growth-control advocates -- who have taken this year's cuts and temporary halt to the state's land preservation programs as a very bad sign.

For now, too many details remain vague to know if Priority Places is a hollow recasting of Smart Growth or a substantial remodeling. Growth-control advocates, who say they've been excluded from discussions with the administration, remain wary.

If Mr. Ehrlich isn't eager to continue the aggressive land purchases of the Glendening administration -- and with the state strapped, it's hard to argue for that -- his approach underscores the other side of the growth management coin: the need to foster high-quality, higher-density redevelopment and in-fill projects in the state's designated growth areas.

A sixth of Maryland's land -- more than a million acres -- already is preserved in one way or another. The state must continue preserving land, but it can't accommodate the additional million residents coming to Maryland over the next two decades by simply buying open land or barring far-flung development; it must redirect growth back inside and along the state's beltways. Every new household steered there saves at least two acres of open land further out.

So Mr. Ehrlich's team now properly talks of focusing on community revitalization, developing brownfields, fostering transit-oriented developments and streamlining regulations to ease redevelopment and in-fill. But this raises three immediate questions:

Will the state step up aid to counties to revamp developed areas' schools, roads and sewers to handle higher housing densities?

Will a state study now under way of how many building lots remain in growth areas show there's enough room in these older communities to accommodate foreseeable growth? Or will the results be used to argue for soon expanding these growth boundaries, inducing more sprawl?

How will the state respond to jurisdictions that don't adequately control development outside their designated growth areas? Under existing policies, more than 20 percent of the Baltimore region's new homes over the next 20 years are projected for outside these developed areas. Mr. Glendening engendered a lot of animosity by getting tough with jurisdictions such as Carroll County, where officials defied Smart Growth tenets. Mr. Ehrlich says he won't similarly intervene in local matters, but what will the state do if counties aren't reining in runaway sprawl?

"Responsible development is not a political issue," Mr. Ehrlich said in unveiling his version of Smart Growth in downtown Baltimore last week. We second that -- and hope very much that he seriously follows through on the promises of Priority Places. The quality of life of each and every Marylander ultimately depends on it.

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