State making little progress with Smart Growth, study says

Policies had little impact on sprawl, congestion

January 06, 2011|By Timothy B. Wheeler, The Baltimore Sun

Thirteen years after Maryland embarked on a nationally recognized effort to promote Smart Growth, the state's laws and policies have had little discernible impact on sprawl or traffic congestion, a new study says, and farms and forests are still threatened by development.

In its most comprehensive review to date, the University of Maryland's National Center for Smart Growth Research says development patterns, commuting times and other trends indicate that the state "has not made measurable progress toward improving its performance in many of the areas it says it cares about."

Gerrit Knaap, director of the center, said there are "a few bright spots," notably the preservation of land and recent promotion of development around transit stops in the Baltimore and Washington areas. But overall, he said, "the evidence suggests that we haven't really bent the curves [of growth] in ways we hoped we would."

The study, underwritten by the Abell Foundation, assessed trends in population and employment, transportation, housing and development and in natural area preservation through 2007. It comes on the eve of a daylong state forum Friday on sustainability convened by Gov. Martin O'Malley, who ran for governor in 2006 on a pledge to strengthen Smart Growth policies. The session is meant to help the O'Malley administration shape its approach to environmental protection, farming and growth over the next four years.

Maryland drew national attention in 1997 when it adopted Smart Growth laws and policies aimed at using state funds to preserve rural land and steer new development to existing communities. It was hailed as a more politically palatable way to curb sprawl than the tight curbs on suburban and rural development in Oregon, which have focused growth in Portland but have provoked political backlash.

Maryland's incentive-based approach has been less controversial, but the study also suggests it's been less effective.

Though Smart Growth was intended to promote more compact development, sprawl does not appear to have eased. Three-fourths of the acreage on which new, single-family homes have been built since 1997 are outside of areas designated under the law for growth, and the study says that ratio has worsened slightly in recent years.

On Smart Growth's other major goal — preservation of open land — the study finds that Maryland has slowed but not halted its chronic losses of farms and forests. Roughly 20 percent of the state's farmland and forestland has been preserved, either through the state buying it or giving private landowners tax breaks in exchange for pledges not to develop their property. Last year, the state protected 12,812 acres, exceeding a 9,700-acre goal set by the O'Malley administration.

But the study notes that farm and forest acreage is trending downward in Maryland and nationwide, and that 60 percent of the state, including a "substantial amount" of open land and important natural areas, remains unprotected.

By other measures, there's not much evidence that Smart Growth has altered the state's demographics and economy — or how residents get around. Population growth has been in line with the national average, the study notes, and there is no clear evidence that Smart Growth has either helped or hurt the state's economy, as employment growth outpaced the national average, at least through 2008.

And until the recent recession, Marylanders continued to drive more, and congestion and car ownership increased. Transit ridership has been higher than in most states, which the study said probably stems mostly from public investment in rail and bus networks in Baltimore and Washington that began before the Smart Growth policies took effect.

Richard E. Hall, the state's planning secretary, said the study's inability to find much impact is "not wildly unexpected," as it echoes previous studies of Smart Growth's effectiveness. He said it takes years, even decades, to alter land use trends, in part because of the long lead time involved in planning for development and the limited impact government can have on market forces.

"You're really turning a battleship with a paddle," he said. "It takes a long time to see differences."

Yet Hall said some positive trends are too recent to show up in data analyzed in the report. Annual losses of farmland peaked at more than 22,000 acres in 2004, he noted, and have lessened since. Meanwhile, nine of the state's 23 counties now have zoning or other programs in place to discourage development in farming areas.

Still, the planning secretary acknowledged that Smart Growth "needs improvement."

"Smart Growth is tough, and some of the measures we have … don't show great progress by themselves," he said. "But we've got to continue to do better because we don't have land to waste."

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