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Fixing smart growth

Today the Maryland Department of Planning is unveiling a draft of Maryland's first state growth plan, which we're calling PlanMaryland. In 1974, the General Assembly authorized such a plan "to promote the general welfare and prosperity of the people of the state through coordinated development of the state," but such a plan was never fulfilled. Maryland went on to adopt pioneering policies to promote smart growth, but the results have fallen far short of the original ambition. In fact, since a pioneering law was passed in 1997 to encourage development in areas best equipped for it, more than three-quarters of residential growth in land area has occurred outside those areas in Maryland. Gov. Martin O'Malley directed us to develop the plan to help address this challenge.

The draft we're releasing for public comment is the culmination of more than three years of collaborative effort between the Maryland Department of Planning, other state agencies and the public. An extensive outreach process involved more than 50 stakeholder organizations and drew feedback from more than 2,000 people. You can access the plan at Plan.Maryland.gov. As we receive public comment this summer, we'll continue to refine the draft before a final version goes to Governor O'Malley this fall.

Smart growth is about channeling growth to areas best equipped to handle it. That means not just big cities but also towns and other designated growth areas that already have roads, schools and other amenities. Projecting road construction and maintenance costs alone in Maryland over the next 20 years, the cost would be $104 billion if we continue current patterns versus $75 billion under a smart growth scenario, according to a study by the Department of Planning.

Some say a period of economic recovery is a bad time to fortify smart growth. But that may make it the best time to get the state's house in order. Government at all levels will not have the ability to fund infrastructure as it has in the past. Moreover, growth patterns built on decades of much cheaper gasoline will have to reflect new realities. Just since 1996, vehicle miles traveled per year grew by 1,000 per Marylander as trips from home to jobs and shopping stretched farther apart. Based on pump prices then (about $1.70 in today's dollars) compared to today, that's the equivalent of about $2,000 per person per year in added gas costs alone.

There's no single, quick fix to a problem 60 years in the making and the various tools that are already working at the state and local levels should continue. PlanMaryland would create a process to better assess and align state policies and capital spending priorities with the principles of sustainability and smart growth. Also, we suggest focusing resources more tightly than the existing "Priority Funding Areas" in municipalities and other growth areas defined by state and local governments. In short, the state should refrain from investing in the proliferation of sprawl because of its long-term public costs, both financially and environmentally.

PlanMaryland is a strategic approach — a vision plan, if you will — to give all state agencies a common focus on growth, development, preservation and related issues. We believe it will help local governments and the private sector in advancing good and sustainable growth and provide them with greater predictability about state funding and technical assistance priorities.

Smart growth does not mean "no growth." It means accommodating growth where it's best equipped to go. In fact, several of Maryland's counties that have been engines for job growth and economic development such as Montgomery, Frederick and Baltimore counties have some of the nation's strongest urban-rural boundaries and farmland protection laws. More proactive smart growth policies could limit the loss of developed acres, hold down infrastructure costs and energy use and protect the Chesapeake Bay and resource industries like agriculture, fishing and tourism.

The goals of smart growth are rooted in fiscal and environmental sustainability. They include more efficient use of public dollars and resources, less dependence on foreign sources of energy, supporting our traditional towns and cities, and, most of all, leaving a Maryland for our children and grandchildren as livable and enjoyable as it has been for us.

The writer is Maryland Secretary of Planning. His email is rhall@mdp.state.md.us.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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