Maryland's fastest-growing suburbs get farther from cities

Old, new areas are beset by population shift woes

April 09, 2004|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

Despite the accolades Maryland won for its Smart Growth policies, the population continues to shift from the cities to the far-flung suburbs of Baltimore and Washington, while inner-ring suburbs have begun to stagnate, according to numbers released today by the Census Bureau.

Real estate agents and home builders say the reason is simple: Young families today want the big kitchens, great rooms and cavernous closets that only new homes can provide, and the growth restrictions in counties such as Baltimore and Montgomery mean that Carroll, Frederick, Harford and Cecil counties are the places to find them.

Political leaders in the region are nearly unified in believing that this trend poses a host of problems.

Baltimore is struggling to hold together its school system and tax base, while Baltimore County is racing to develop new strategies to revitalize older neighborhoods.

Anne Arundel and Howard counties have cut off development near crowded schools; Harford County is pushing for impact fees on new homes to pay for infrastructure; and Carroll County is in the midst of a yearlong freeze on nearly all growth while it re-evaluates its development laws.

Despite the Smart Growth policies that then- Gov. Parris N. Glendening instituted in 1997, people are still moving to communities far from Maryland's cities, to places without the infrastructure to handle the influx.

"The unfortunate reality is that this reflects what's happening all over the country," Glendening said yesterday after reviewing the data. "It's a continuation of patterns of the past. As I said when I first proposed Smart Growth, we didn't get here overnight, and we can't reverse the path overnight."

The fastest-growing counties in Maryland are Calvert and Charles, south of Washington, and Queen Anne's, just across the Bay Bridge from Annapolis. All three posted annual population gains of more than 3 percent.

Baltimore region

No counties in the Baltimore region grew that fast, but Cecil, Harford and Carroll all posted growth rates of more than 2 percent, well above the statewide figure of 1.1 percent.

The estimates are for the year ending July 1, 2003, so they don't take into account the growth moratorium that went into effect in Carroll about that time.

Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties had growth rates of 1 percent or less, while Howard saw a 1.6 percent increase.

In raw numbers, the population growth in these outlying suburban counties is smaller than the gains made by the inner-ring suburbs.

Immigration factor

But more detailed data released today show that if not for international migration and births, that wouldn't be so. In fact, if not for immigrants, Montgomery County would have lost population last year.

Cindy Ariosa, president of the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors and the regional vice president for Long and Foster, said she's surprised that the growth rates in the outer counties aren't higher.

Three years ago, Long and Foster's Cecil County office did about $4 million in sales a month. Last month, agents there sold $31 million in real estate, she said.

The reason, she said, is that new homes are still being built in the outer counties, and the dual-career young couples of today are looking for amenities that old houses don't offer.

Ideal house

They want big kitchens connected with family rooms so that in their scarce time home from work, the family is concentrated in one place. They want smaller lots so they're not spending all their time on yard work, and they want to be in neighborhoods where everyone is having children at the same time, just like in the original suburban movement of the 1950s, she said.

"Leisure time is precious, and the new home allows young couples and dual-career couples to focus on their families," Ariosa said.

Realtors also said buyers are usually able to get more house for their money in the farflung counties, particularly in the Washington area.

The continued growth in the outer suburbs might not conflict with Smart Growth principles, said John W. Frece, communications director of the National Center for Smart Growth Research and Education at the University of Maryland.

The premise of Glendening's Smart Growth program was that each county would designate a priority funding area, and the state would spend on infrastructure there and not elsewhere.

If the development is occurring within those areas, it's good from a Smart Growth perspective, said Frece, who is also a former Glendening aide.

Counties' authority

Earlier efforts at stricter, centralized growth controls were political nonstarters - counties balked at giving up their traditional role in land-use decisions - so Glendening's program focused on incentives, not restrictions, Frece said.

But preserving the authority of the counties leads to complications.

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