A reality check

September 28, 2006

Here's what happens when you get a diverse group of Maryland residents together to decide the future of the state: They prefer growth packed into existing communities and served by viable transit lines. They want farms and other open space preserved. And yet, the reality is that local governments are woefully unprepared to provide this future with their comprehensive plans and zoning ordinances. Such measures are almost always too lax in some ways, yet too restrictive in others - by permitting too much sprawl and prohibiting enough mixed-used, high-density urban development and affordable housing.

The recent "Reality Check Plus" exercise asked 850 volunteers from across the state to decide how Maryland's projected growth should be accommodated. Whether the participants were from the Eastern Shore or Baltimore didn't matter. When asked how best to house an expected 1.5 million new residents by 2030, people decided they didn't want growth to destroy the remaining green spaces.

So why the disconnect between local land-use planning and this sensible goal? Part of the problem, of course, is that zoning decisions are too often driven by developers with deep pockets and even deeper political influence. Conversely, local opposition groups motivated by a not-in-my-backyard mentality can stymie good, high-density development plans too. The counties and municipalities try to look at the bigger picture, but their efforts inevitably lead down a haphazard path of least resistance.

It's not just the zoning process. Taxpayers are subsidizing sprawl every time the state widens a road making it easier for people living in Pennsylvania to work in suburban Baltimore, or builds a school in an exurban community where growth is mismanaged.

There is no simple solution. Greater regional and state-level involvement in planning would help. So might additional government investment in transit and urban redevelopment. But this much is clear: The growth is coming. The only question is whether it will take the form and location that people would prefer.

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