Marylanders favor preservation, report says

Findings based on workshops held with residents, politicians, developers, planners on long-term growth

September 26, 2006|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,Sun reporter

A broad cross-section of Marylanders favors steering most of the state's expected population growth over the next 25 years into already-existing communities and preserving more rural land than local officials are planning to do, according to a report to be released today.

The report, summarizing a series of growth "visioning" workshops last spring, says participants generally agreed there should be a major shift in Maryland's land-use patterns, increasing development density inside the Baltimore and Washington beltways and along transit lines - in some cases beyond what current zoning allows - to spare forests and farmland from the bulldozer.

"People are looking for real solutions," said Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of 1000 Friends of Maryland, one of the organizers of the workshops, dubbed "Reality Check Plus."

"People are tired of natural areas being paved over," she added, "tired of sitting in traffic, tired of overcrowded schools, tired of worrying that there won't be enough drinking water or that it's contaminated."

Planners, developers, community activists and elected officials - about 850 in all - came together in four meetings in May and June to craft blueprints for long-term growth of their regions. Huddling over table-sized maps, participants stacked brightly colored Legos where they agreed future homes and jobs should go.

The sessions were organized by the National Center for Smart Growth Research and Education at the University of Maryland, a land-use think tank; 1000 Friends of Maryland, advocates for compact development and land preservation; and the Baltimore council of the Urban Land Institute, a group of mostly urban developers.

The "Reality Check Plus" report comes as growth flares as an election issue, with candidates for local and statewide office airing their positions on spurring or curbing development.

"All over the Shore, this is really being debated," said Vienna Mayor Russell Brinsfield. "I think it's healthy."

The U.S. Census Bureau has projected that Maryland, the fifth-most densely populated state in the country, will grow from 5.5 million people now to 7 million by 2030. An additional 28,000 households and 45,000 jobs are expected in the next decade as a result of a nationwide military base reorganization.

The workshop participants generally favored directing more of those new people to officially designated growth areas and fewer of them to rural areas than planners now expect or than zoning laws would allow. They also urged concentrating more new housing and jobs close to transit stations than current plans call for.

Workshop organizers acknowledged that proposals to increase development density are not politically popular, as residents complain about clogged roads, overcrowded classrooms and loss of green space.

"There is some disconnect between that desire [to concentrate development] and what happens on the ground," said John W. Frece, associate director of UM's Smart Growth research center and the report's primary author. "There are two things people don't like - one is sprawl, and the other is density."

John Kortecamp, executive vice president of the Home Builders Association of Maryland and a participant, said the workshop conclusions reflect a certain "naivete" about changing zoning laws and overcoming community opposition to development.

But Kortecamp praised the general agreement reached that development should be concentrated "in areas that can and should support it, meaning where there's good transit of various sorts, and that there needs to be a connection between jobs and housing that currently does not exist." Many suburban counties have wooed businesses while limiting new housing, forcing workers to live elsewhere and commute.

"This is not a substitute for sophisticated planning," said Frece. "This is the result of bringing together 850 laymen from all walks of life. ... It is a very crude sort of measurement, but I think it gives an indication of a direction."

Organizers say they hope to use the report as a springboard to promote more public discussion of growth in Maryland and develop a series of policy recommendations for how to realize the participants' visions of more compact development.

Some participants in the Western Maryland planning workshop have formed a group, Allegany by Design, and are planning to try to influence local master plans as they are rewritten in the next year. Allegany has been split over a proposal to build Terrapin Run, a 4,300-home planned community, near a state forest.

"I don't think there's a one of us that doesn't truly want to see more economic development and a greater array of housing options. ..." said Colleen Peterson, director of the Greater Cumberland Committee. "But we want it so that it's utilitarian and not just for the sake of growth."

Some, including Vienna's Brinsfield, said they believe the state government, either through legislation or its control of state funding, has to play a more forceful role in managing growth and underwriting the needed roads, schools and utilities in areas where development ought to occur.

But Audrey E. Scott, state secretary of planning, said local officials in Maryland jealously guard their control over land use, and the state can only seek to educate and cooperate with them.

"You're not going to change people's minds overnight, but it's a start," she said. "And you've got to start somewhere. I'm glad someone is talking about it."

tim.wheeler@baltsun.com

Information: www.reality check.org.

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