State of sprawl

April 25, 2005

THE LATEST Census Bureau estimates are in for Maryland, and they add up to a state in which residents continue moving farther and farther away from developed areas - a state in which sprawl, despite Maryland's history of breakthrough growth-management efforts, continues to gobble up land.

Overall, Maryland's growth slowed in the year ending last July. Baltimore lost residents. The city's and Washington's inner suburbs grew modestly. But in five outer counties - Cecil, Calvert, Charles, St. Mary's and Washington - populations rose the fastest, from 2 percent to almost 3 percent in just one year, largely from in-state migration.

That stretched-out growth pattern chews up land, lengthens commutes, pollutes the Chesapeake Bay and strains local budgets. It creates a state that's a checkerboard of suburbs, a place with too little there there.

If that underscores the insufficiency of Maryland's Smart Growth programs and its extensive land purchases under former Gov. Parris N. Glendening, it also speaks to the near-emptiness of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s approach to growth management.

The administration has done some good things. The state Planning Department has prodded counties to tally by a single standard their available building lots, a seemingly simple task riven with complexities. It has put its own stamp on Smart Growth, recasting it as a Priority Places program emphasizing revitalizing older areas.

But the four communities designated so far as Priority Places - areas of Hyattsville and Crisfield were named last week - can expect for now to get only some technical and regulatory assistance, not state aid. State land purchases have stopped under Mr. Ehrlich. The administration is unenthusiastic about mass transit, opting instead for sprawl-inducers, the widening of Route 32 in rural Howard County and construction of the Intercounty Connector from Interstate 95 to Interstate 270.

The administration can counter rightfully that land-use decisions largely remain a local matter - and, indeed, there's plenty of blame to go around.

Baltimore has made good use of state historic tax credits to foster redevelopment, and Baltimore County is trying to remake its older Beltway neighborhoods while protecting its northern farmland. But too many counties still resist using zoning to steer growth and affordable housing to already built-up areas and away from open land. Their zoning codes still allow developers to sprinkle homes across farmland - and Priority Places aside, there's little encouragement from this State House to summon the needed political courage to do otherwise.

Meanwhile, the Census Bureau now projects that Maryland's population will grow by a third from 2000 to 2030, hitting 7 million - 500,000 more people than the state had been estimating.

Maryland's growth pressures will only increase. And while they tend not to grab daily headlines, how well they're managed likely will have a more enduring impact on the quality of life in Maryland than anything else on the governor's agenda.

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