Managing growth: Smart, but not easy

The Baltimore Sun

In running for governor, Martin O'Malley pledged to reinvigorate Maryland's pioneering Smart Growth efforts to curb suburban sprawl and revitalize existing communities.

After nearly five months in office, his administration is learning how difficult that can be. O'Malley found himself voting recently to block a 1,350-home waterfront development on Kent Island that had passed legal muster with his Environment and Planning departments, even though he said "common sense" would tell anyone that a low-lying island on the Chesapeake Bay was the wrong place to build so many houses.

The administration also has gone to court to defend the governor's pledge to finish a new highway linking Washington's Maryland suburbs that most environmentalists and managed-growth advocates see as a sprawl-inducer.

Meanwhile, despite hopeful signs in recent years of redevelopment in Baltimore and other downtrodden cities and towns, the share of homes being built outside of designated growth areas is higher now than when Smart Growth began 10 years ago.

"It's tough, and it's going to get tougher," says Richard Eberhart Hall, a career planner whom O'Malley tapped to run the state Department of Planning. Hall, a native of Salisbury and a Baltimore City resident, is the administration's point man on Smart Growth.

Already the fifth most densely populated state in the nation, Maryland is projected to add another million people to its population of 5.6 million in the next 20 to 25 years.

That already robust growth is likely to accelerate in the next four or five years in the Baltimore-Washington area, as military base realignment brings 45,000 to 60,000 jobs. Most of those workers will be commuting to or near Aberdeen Proving Ground in Harford County and Fort Meade in Anne Arundel County, but the 28,000 households the jobs are projected to bring with them could settle miles, or counties, away.

O'Malley has said he wants to accommodate the defense-related jobs and households in a way that that does not aggravate sprawl or traffic congestion, already among the nation's worst.

Exactly how that's to be done remains to be seen.

Just last week, the governor and Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown launched a crash six-month base-realignment planning effort, aiming to coordinate nine different state departments to assist local officials in accommodating the growth smoothly.

Adopted in 1997 at the urging of then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening, Smart Growth called for using the power of the state's purse strings to encourage development in and around existing communities, instead of in former farm fields and forests. State funds for roads, sewers and other needed public services would be earmarked for spending in designated growth areas and hard to come by outside them.

The concept has proved popular, in large part because it aims to control sprawl through financial incentives, rather than controversial regulations or government restrictions on property rights. Other states have enacted similar laws.

But Smart Growth's track record in Maryland has been mixed at best, Hall acknowledges.

Sitting in his 11th-floor office at the state office complex in West Baltimore, Hall points to a map of the state on his wall, with mustard-colored splotches in each county and municipality where, as a result of the decade-old Smart Growth law, local and state officials have agreed development should go.

Three-quarters of all the homes built in the state since the law was enacted have been inside those smart-growth zones. Known bureaucratically as "priority funding areas," they are where the state is willing to provide funding for roads, sewers and other infrastructure.

But three-fourths of all the land on which homes have been built is outside those growth areas. And the average amount of land consumed for each home built inside the designated growth zones has actually been creeping up - the opposite of what smart-growth advocates had hoped to see after 10 years.

While the land-use numbers tell a dispiriting story, Hall notes that you don't see what might have been built if the 1997 growth law hadn't been enacted.

"Is this whole Smart Growth thing working? I think it does help. I can't measure for you how things would have happened if we had not had" the law, Hall says. "I would argue it would be worse now."

Others say Smart Growth has altered Maryland's landscape, though not always in the way intended.

In the suburbs of Baltimore and Washington, builders complain that they have been shut out of designated growth areas either by community opposition or by local laws barring new home construction where schools are overcrowded or roads gridlocked. Local officials either lack the funding or the political will to fix the problems, they contend.

"No one is making the tough decisions on accepting the residential growth that comes with those jobs," says John E. Kortecamp, executive vice president of the Home Builders Association of Maryland.

Some of that development pressure is spilling over the Chesapeake Bay onto the Eastern Shore. Once a preserve of farmers and fishers, the peninsula has seen a flurry of development on the outskirts of many of its small towns and villages. Smart Growth calls for new construction in and around existing communities, but in many of these cases large new housing projects being built on farmland annexed into the towns dwarf the numbers of homes already there.

"We've been stuffing way too much growth into these growth areas, way more than we can handle," says Rob Etgen, executive director of the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy. If current development trends continue, he predicts, the Shore will add 160,000 new residents and lose an additional 215,000 acres of farm and forest by 2030.

Advocates say Maryland's Smart Growth efforts flagged under O'Malley's predecessor, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. In his first three years, Ehrlich, a Republican, slashed funds for rural and farmland preservation and for some Smart Growth redevelopment efforts.

O'Malley promised in his campaign to re-establish the Office of Smart Growth, which Ehrlich had all but dismantled, and to restore funding for preserving open space. The preservation funds have rebounded, at least for now, and the administration has funded a five-person smart-growth office.

Those first steps have heartened smart-growth advocates, who contend that Maryland has lost its national leadership on growth-management in the past several years. Pennsylvania, for instance, has surpassed Maryland as the state with the most acres of farmland preserved from development.

"I think Maryland was at the forefront, and then people just understood how fragile it can be without a strong leader over the last couple years," says Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of 1000 Friends of Maryland. "We're looking to recapture the lead again."

Others say tough new policies and laws are needed if Maryland's epidemic of sprawl is to be seriously attacked.

During the debate over the proposed Kent Island project, O'Malley said that state planning needs more "teeth" to oversee growth, especially in the critical area bordering the bay.

"Can you really manage growth using incentives alone? My answer is no," says Gerrit Knaap, director of the National Center for Smart Growth Research and Education at the University of Maryland. The center plans to bring experts from across the country together in October for a three-day "critical examination" of Maryland's Smart Growth experiment.

"You need to do planning, and you probably need land-use regulations as well, and you need public-private partnerships and it requires investment. All these things need to be coordinated," Knaap adds, and incentives alone can't be relied on to do that.

Hall says that the O'Malley administration isn't ready yet to propose new laws and that it's still trying to get a better handle on the legal and budgetary levers already available for encouraging growth in existing communities and discouraging it in the countryside.

Smart Growth's original advocate, Glendening, isn't ready to give up on incentives just yet, either. He expresses confidence that O'Malley and Hall can make progress in reducing sprawl, despite his disagreement with them over the Washington-area highway.

Glendening, now president of the Smart Growth Institute in Washington, a think tank promoting the idea nationally, acknowledges that incentives alone will not stop sprawl. But only two states, Oregon and Washington, have adopted tough land-use regulations establishing growth boundaries, and there have been political backlashes in both states.

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