Checks on Md. sprawl go awry

Spending on projects not monitored as law requires, report says

October 01, 2007|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN REPORTER

It's nearly impossible to tell how effective Maryland's 10-year-old Smart Growth law has been at curbing sprawl because state agencies haven't kept track of where their spending goes, as the law requires, a new study finds.

The study, to be published today by the National Center for Smart Growth Research and Education at the University of Maryland, says that officials through two administrations did a poor job of monitoring whether state funds for building roads, sewers and other public improvements were spent in designated growth areas, as the law intended.

"The Glendening administration tried to do it but didn't succeed," said Gerrit Knaap, director of the research center. "And then Ehrlich dropped it."

Knaap, a co-author of the study, says that failure to monitor spending has undermined the growth-management law adopted in 1997, pushed through by then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening.

The law aims to use state funding to encourage development in and around existing communities. It required local governments to designate areas already served by public water and sewer as growth zones, and said state spending would be focused in these "priority funding areas."

"The way to guide state infrastructure spending using priority funding areas is not working well," Knaap said.

The report comes the same week that the Smart Growth center convenes a three-day conference assessing Maryland's 10-year-old growth management effort. The O'Malley administration has pledged to strengthen state efforts to curb sprawl, though it has yet to unveil any specific initiatives or proposed legislation.

By some measures, the effort to use the power of the state's purse strings to stop subsidizing sprawl has shown little, if any, progress since it began in 1998.

About three-fourths of all building permits for new homes from 1990 to 2004 were issued for development inside designated growth areas, according to state planning figures. But about three-fourths of the land developed for new homes was outside those growth areas.

Moreover, the share of all residential building permits that were issued outside of growth areas has increased since 1998, according to state planning data. So has the percentage of land developed for new homes that was beyond growth-area boundaries.

When Glendening was governor, state agencies tried to comply with the law's requirement that they report annually where they spent money, the study says, but there never was a full accounting. Reporting dwindled under Glendening's successor, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who cut funding and staff for the Office of Smart Growth.

About $1.1 billion a year in state spending was deemed growth-related by state officials, researchers found, but that represents only about 5 percent of the overall budget. The vast majority of funding subject to the law was for transportation, though toll highways, the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and harbor tunnels were exempt. So were school construction and renovation.

About 60 percent of state transportation spending covered by the law went to projects inside growth areas, the study says. The remainder was either "grandfathered" for projects that had been planned before the law took effect, went to highway and transit work stretching beyond any one location, or was exempted from the law for one reason or another.

There were 62 projects given exceptions to the law's requirement that state funds go to "priority funding areas."

But researchers found that the state Department of Planning, which shared responsibility for tracking spending, did not keep a complete tally of money involved in those cases. Among the projects exempted were the east-west Intercounty Connector highway through the Washington suburbs and a widening of Route 32 in western Howard County.

To some, the latest report's findings confirm the flaws they see in Maryland's Smart Growth efforts.

"Most people who are involved in growth management in Maryland understand that the priority funding areas aren't functioning as they were intended to," said Tom Ballentine, director of government affairs for the Home Builders Association of Maryland. Builders have complained particularly about building bans in growth areas where local laws bar new homes until roads, schools and utilities can be upgraded.

"We have a law, but if we're not going to have a monitoring and enforcement system, it's not going to happen particularly effectively, and the impact of the law will be lessened," said Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of 1000 Friends of Maryland.

However, Knaap questions how effective the law would have been at limiting sprawl even if it had been rigorously monitored and applied. The amount of state money covered by the law was not that large, relatively speaking, Knaap said, and it appears that most of it already was being spent in designated growth areas.

"I think it makes sense for the state to worry and try to monitor where it spends its money, to do everything it can to avoid subsidizing sprawl," said Knaap. "But I don't think just that is enough to change development patterns."

Richard E. Hall, O'Malley's secretary of planning, concurs, though he contends that the law's biggest contribution was in requiring localities to map out where they wanted to grow.

"No one who knows anything about growth would think that the 1997 law would change things overnight. I think it is having an effect," he said, though he acknowledged it has been impossible to measure.

"We need to do more," Hall concluded. "What that more is, we haven't decided yet."

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