Smarter smart growth

October 02, 2007

It's not terribly surprising to learn that state agencies haven't kept sufficient track of how their spending fits in with Maryland's Smart Growth law. The reality of Smart Growth is that what started out as a good idea has been compromised, weakened and outright ignored over the years, particularly during Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s tenure as governor.

But the study released yesterday by the National Center for Smart Growth Research and Education in College Park underscores the need to revisit the program's design rather than its goals. After all, Smart Growth's principles - concentrating growth, preserving green spaces, limiting sprawl and redeveloping blighted urban areas - are even more relevant today than they were when the law was enacted a decade ago.

Under Smart Growth, all this was supposed to be accomplished by funneling state aid to areas where growth ought to be taking place. These so-called PFAs (priority funding areas) would get more money for roads, water, sewer and other infrastructure. The state might not control local planning, but Baltimore and the 23 counties would be expected to consider PFAs in their planning.

How much has the law shaped development over the years? The study's authors don't hazard a guess. But it's hard to believe the impact has been terribly profound when one considers that less than 5 percent of the state's budget is involved, and most of that is for transportation projects that might well have been built regardless of the PFA designation.

Linking state aid with good planning was a deliberately gentle approach to encourage local governments to do the right thing. But perhaps it's been too gentle. Many projects were exempted - the loopholes include one for toll roads such as the Intercounty Connector. And the state has never had oversight over PFA designations; local government complied by simply drawing up the maps.

The lack of reporting is a symptom of a larger problem. The goals of Smart Growth may be commendable but the requirements are too easily circumvented. It's hard to blame state agencies for deciding they had better things to do than fill out reports.

Maryland Planning Secretary Richard E. Hall says he would like to see state government do more with Smart Growth but hasn't figured out what that more is yet. He needs to do so quickly.

Polls show large numbers of Maryland voters perceive runaway development as one of the state's most pressing challenges. Military base reorganization and closure decisions that are expected to bring thousands of workers here in the next few years lend the matter even greater urgency.

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