Sprawl monitor

April 02, 2007

Where do schools fit into the mix of Maryland's relatively progressive stand on Smart Growth? It's a somewhat fluid and evolving process. And amid growing concerns about longer commutes to school and increased distances between schools and the communities they serve, Gov. Martin O'Malley's administration should offer more incentives to ensure that schools are located in planned growth areas throughout the state.

The state's 1997 Smart Growth law limits state spending on roads, utilities and similar services to existing cities and towns or to specific areas designated for growth, usually those already served by public water and sewer. Schools are generally considered as part of overall Smart Growth planning in the state, and most new schools approved in the last six years have been within designated growth areas.

But the trend toward larger schools, with parking lots, ball fields and even space for pollution runoffs, has pushed some school buildings outside of areas planned for residential development. State education and planning officials note that even sites within growth areas can be compromised by poor topography, exorbitantly expensive land, environmental concerns or community resistance, and this has the effect of pushing schools outside desired growth areas.

Mr. O'Malley has proposed $400 million from the state for school construction, a desirable increase that still won't cover half of what local school districts - which have to put up the remainder of school building costs - say they need.

The state can and should be a significant partner that provides more than just money, particularly as some counties try to cope with anticipated school population increases related to military base realignments. The state Planning Department is taking another look at a range of issues regarding school construction policies and will try to identify incentives to encourage locating schools within easier walking distance of communities or at least shorter bus or car rides.

Planning officials also want to see more schools like Great Seneca Creek Elementary in Germantown, the state's first school to meet the standards of the U.S. Green Building Council. More state support for schools that are environmentally and community friendly would help keep Smart Growth vigorous.

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