Smart Growth policy defended

`We did good,' says Glendening, who crafted Md. anti-sprawl law

October 04, 2007|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,Sun reporter

The architect of Maryland's decade-old Smart Growth policy spoke up for it yesterday, arguing that despite its shortcomings at curbing suburban sprawl it has helped revitalize dying downtowns across the state and kick-started a national movement to build more transit-oriented, walkable communities.

Speaking in Annapolis at a conference reviewing the growth-management law he crafted, former Gov. Parris N. Glendening acknowledged that a few metropolitan areas and states such as Oregon and Seattle have had more success than has Maryland at reining in low-density development. He pointed out that those states and regions imposed strict growth boundaries and development regulations - something he said was not politically viable in Maryland then or now.

"We did good; we could have done better," he said, summing up afterward. "But most important, we stimulated a national debate that really changed policy."

Though studies have shown his approach of using state funds as a carrot to encourage compact development seems to have had little effect on the spread of suburbia, Glendening contended that other elements of his policy clearly succeeded, funneling money into downtown revitalization in cities such as Baltimore, Easton, Hagerstown and Hyattsville. The state also preserved more than 400,000 acres of rural land from the bulldozer during his eight years in office, he pointed out.

But the greatest accomplishment of Maryland's then-pioneering effort, the former governor said, may have occurred elsewhere, inspired by the national attention the state's policy received. In the past decade, more than half the states have adopted some form of smart-growth policy or program, he said.

Since leaving the State House, Glendening has become a national spokesman for "smart growth." He heads a Washington-based nonprofit institute promoting the idea and crisscrosses the country on speaking tours.

Glendening accused his successor, Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., of undermining Smart Growth, despite making statements in support of it. The Ehrlich administration forced out state officials committed to the policy, Glendening said, and "zeroed out" or watered down key programs. He also criticized "hostility at the federal level" during the Bush administration to public transit and smart growth.

The state's Smart Growth policy has come under critical scrutiny, as state planning data show that about three-fourths of all the land developed for new housing from 1990 to 2004 was outside designated growth areas. Three-fourths of all homes built during that time did get constructed inside "priority funding areas," as the growth areas are called in the state policy. But the share of all homes built outside growth areas has increased slightly, planning data indicate, as has the proportion of land used for residential development.

The National Center for Smart Growth Research and Education at the University of Maryland, College Park, sponsor of the three-day conference, released a report this week saying that it was difficult to tell why the state's growth management policy wasn't working better because state agencies had not done a good job of tracking where state funds went.

The report faulted the Glendening and Ehrlich administrations for not fulfilling the law's requirement to report annually on whether state funds for roads, water and sewer and other infrastructure were aiding development in or out of growth areas.

Glendening did not address that criticism during his speech, but asked about it afterward, maintained that his administration had tracked growth-related spending. He acknowledged that "some departments were not as aggressive at monitoring and enforcement as they should have been."

Gov. Martin O'Malley has vowed to strengthen the state's growth- management efforts. Glendening praised O'Malley yesterday, and said it might be time to put some teeth, and more money, into the effort to get people to want to live closer together and closer to where they work. He said the state should "step in" if county governments fail to act to curb sprawl.

"As we face booming population, rising sea levels, a warming planet, escalating gas prices and a troubled housing market, the need for aggressive action is urgent," he said.

But speaking later at the conference, Jan Gardner, president of the Frederick County Board of Commissioners, argued that the current "carrot-and-stick" approach was the right one, and that local officials and the public support Smart Growth, at least in concept.

"The biggest problem is there haven't been enough carrots," she said, appealing for more state funds for roads, schools and other infrastructure to help steer growth where it ought to go. Development spreads into farmland in part because traffic congestion and overcrowded schools prevent new home construction in growth areas, an earlier study found.

Gardner also said the state's biggest growth challenge in the next decade was the impending influx of workers and families as a result of military base realignment.

Planners project that up to 60,000 jobs and 28,000 households might move into Maryland in the next five years, drawn mainly by buildups at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Harford County and Fort Meade in Anne Arundel County. Gardner said she foresaw some Meade workers settling in Frederick if they couldn't find more affordable housing closer.

"I think it's not good to have all that commuting," she said.

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