Smarter Smart Growth

Let the New Year bring Maryland a re-energized planning strategy centered on what really works

January 01, 2009|By Jaquelyn Magness Seneschal and James Noonan

Most Marylanders remain blissfully unaware of how growth and development occur around them or affect their daily choices. They probably don't know about last summer's round of "listening sessions" sponsored by the Maryland Department of Planning, or the draft report from the Task Force on the Future for Growth and Development in Maryland - or that the General Assembly expects to see legislation this year to "revise and re-energize" Maryland's Smart Growth program.

But what comes out of the 2009 legislative session may be critical to the development community, the environmental community and, eventually, everyone in Maryland. So now may be a good time to highlight the things that are working in Maryland's Smart Growth efforts and to suggest initiatives that show promise for the future.

A decade after the initiative began, what works and what doesn't? What hasn't worked, according to the Maryland Department of Planning, are efforts to reduce sprawl development. By contrast, the essential finding of a study presented at the 2007 conference of the National Center for Smart Growth is that state programs targeted to support existing communities and downtown revitalization promote more development and private investment in these areas, where the state wants new growth and development to occur. The list of successful downtown communities in Maryland is extensive and growing. Examples can be found in every region: in Glen Burnie, Cumberland, Frederick and Hyattsville, as well as in smaller communities.

One of the key indicators of the success of these revitalization efforts is the level of private investment they attract. In most communities, the most beneficial and visible redevelopment projects are the work of local investors. These projects are beneficial when they make existing communities more livable and more competitive in the marketplace.

Every dollar the state allocated to the Department of Housing and Community Development's Community Legacy or Neighborhood Works programs between 1997 and 2007 supported an additional $5 to $5.50 in local or private investment. Historic building tax credits supported investments in projects at a rate of $4 for every tax credit dollar. State support for these programs resulted in financial commitments by business owners, residents and investors in downtowns and existing communities.

Let us suggest an alternative to top-down oversight over local planning and zoning. This alternative approach is not so driven by artificial statistics - such as land "consumption" numbers or statewide goals for land preservation - that have no real relationship to how people live. It is driven by the goal of making existing communities more attractive places to live, work and play.

First, increase the investment in programs targeted to making existing towns and communities more livable. Gov. Martin O'Malley recently spent $72 million on additional open space acquisition. How much private investment might Maryland cities and towns attract by spending even half that sum on revitalizing parks, improving water lines, sewer and storm drains, building sidewalks or investing in landscaping to create more livable and walkable downtowns and neighborhoods?

Second, implement the state's vision that "economic growth is encouraged and regulatory mechanisms are streamlined." Of the "Eight Visions" established as the state's growth policies, that is the one that is most often ignored. Instead, it seems there is a never-ending stream of ideas for new regulations and review processes to confound and delay even projects that meet the critical needs of existing, distressed communities.

Third, build administrative and planning capacity in local communities. Programs that train local planning commissioners or provide funding to support implementation of existing planning requirements go further in achieving the state's development goals than any effort to develop a state plan.

Shouldn't we direct state funds and planning programs into the communities we want to make more attractive, so that more people want to live and work there? Shouldn't we invest public money in a way that creates jobs and attracts private investment? Isn't that the real meaning of "smart growth"?

Jaquelyn Magness Seneschal has more than 25 years experience in planning and is former planning director for Charles County. James Noonan is retired from the Maryland Department of Planning, where he served as director of local planning assistance.

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