Smart growth is still smart

If you want to be on the receiving end of cheers and a nice round of applause at a Maryland Association of Counties meeting, tell local officials that they should be in charge of land planning decisions and not the state. That’s what Gov. Larry Hogan did last Saturday in Ocean City, and, predictably, he got a pretty warm reception when he announced that “Plan Maryland” was off the books and that “we will finally put local planning authority back into the hands of local governments — where it belongs.”

The announcement likely came as no surprise. Plan Maryland (aka PlanMaryland) has been unofficially off the books for quite some time. Non-MACO members might be forgiven for not knowing exactly what Plan Maryland is, or was, but here’s the short answer: It was an effort by then-Gov. Martin O’Malley to hold local jurisdictions accountable for sprawl development and other misguided land use decisions that harm the environment, particularly the Chesapeake Bay. It did this chiefly by withholding state funds from counties that chose to ignore their own long-term planning guidelines and authorized development outside the areas they themselves had designated for future growth.

This alleged act of state control over planning was especially aggravating to rural counties, which would prefer state and federal taxpayers be affluent patrons that ask no questions. Governor O’Malley reasoned, however, that state taxpayers shouldn’t be helping pay for sprawl development by subsidizing sewers, schools and roads on the one hand and then have to pay for pollution mitigation programs to make up for foolish development choices on the other. There is a compelling state interest in cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay (and not wasting tax dollars), so why not assert it?

To his credit, Governor Hogan didn’t say he was abandoning the environmental goals of Plan Maryland, only that he wanted the process to be more transparent and collaborative. There’s nothing wrong with that. But holding the feet of local government to the fire is easier said than done. Plan Maryland was no communist plot, but, by the shrill reaction of some local officials over the years, you might have actually believed there was a “war on rural Maryland” as they claimed. Mr. Hogan has so far offered no details of how his new-and-improved approach would work nor has acting Planning Secretary Wendi Peters, whom readers may recognize as being one of two Hogan cabinet members who aren’t currently drawing a salary because they weren’t confirmed by the state Senate. This does not inspire confidence.

Still, Mr. Hogan deserves the benefit of the doubt. He has threaded this environmental needle before. Most famously, he ran an entire campaign for governor beating on another O’Malley era initiative, the fee local governments collect to pay for stormwater control, as a “rain tax.” And then, after being elected to office, he finessed the matter rather nicely by “repealing” the tax (which was already being treated as optional) but holding local governments more strictly accountable for their runoff control efforts (sediment control ponds, for example) the fee was meant to finance. If he can achieve the same with smart growth, who cares if he simply wipes the words, “Plan Maryland,” from the books? Chalk it up to partisan self-interest, hardly an uncommon trait among politicians.

Here’s where the rubber actually meets the road: More people are moving into the Chesapeake Bay watershed every day and, as a result, we are losing forests, fields, farms and open space at an alarming pace while increasing air and water pollution. One of the best ways to lessen the negative impact of this growth is to conserve land and direct development toward towns and cities where infrastructure — like sewage plants, roads and schools — already exists. How that is enforced is immaterial but it needs to involve more than lip-service. When local governments are given the option of limiting growth, they often don’t. Developers have too much political and financial clout and they are seldom, if ever, shy about using it to assert their interests in local decision-making.

Governor O’Malley simply put enforcement teeth into the Smart Growth plan proposed by Gov. Parris Glendening and approved by the legislature 20 years ago. If Governor Hogan has a better approach, one that keeps local government happier, so much the better. The proof is in the pudding, or to use a more apt metaphor, perhaps it might be measured in the size of the “dead zone” forming in the Chesapeake Bay this summer. This year’s dead zone — an area starved of oxygen because of excess nutrients in the water — is expected to be larger than usual, the equivalent of 3.2 million Olympic size swimming pools.

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