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Ending Sprawl Isn’t About Stopping All Development

Maryland Smart Growth program a model for Michigan

February 22, 1998 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Michigan’s deteriorating urban and rural landscape is prompting a more urgent discussion in dozens of communities about the disquieting costs of suburban sprawl. In Lansing, though, leaders of both parties have been haplessly silent, not for lack of awareness of the problems but because they had no clear political strategy to solve them.

Hey, folks, look east! Last spring, in a gutsy display of useful lawmaking, the legislature in Maryland studied the toll reckless development was taking on communities and approved a package of laws to actually begin curbing suburban sprawl. The relative ease with which Maryland enacted its Smart Growth program, and the program’s prudent approach, could well serve as the model on which Michigan bases its own growth management legislation.

The beauty of the Smart Growth program is its simplicity. Maryland recognized that government spending for such things as roads, sewers, housing, schools, factories, and government buildings is a prime cause of sprawl. Lawmakers decided to point the state’s engines of economic development in a new direction. Starting next fall, Maryland will use its $16 billion annual budget to provide financial incentives to direct new construction toward cities and towns instead of away from them. Simultaneously, the state will make it much more difficult to spend public dollars for new development in farm fields, forests, and natural areas.

Notably, Maryland chose to put the brakes on sprawl by not restricting development. The law does not add new layers of bureaucracy and more government. It did not mandate regional planning, growth boundaries, confusing zoning, or prescriptive land use rules that have proved so politically troublesome in Michigan and other states. Maryland just said it won’t use taxpayer money to subsidize building a new subdivision or a new mall or a new school or a new road in an inappropriate area, like a corn field five miles from town.

“It just makes sense,” said Parris N. Glendening, Maryland’s Democratic governor, who developed the program’s central premise. “People understand what’s happening. They understand we can not go on with sprawl eating up every acre of farmland and forest land. We can not go on with programs that constantly cause deterioration in central cities and inner suburbs. We can not keep using public funds to promote sprawl.”

In enacting Smart Growth, Maryland became the latest state to take steps to reverse the damaging consequences of runaway development. Even more crucial, though, is that in using the state treasury as a lever to curb sprawl, Maryland seized on a politically feasible strategy that is already attracting the attention of the Clinton Administration, and is likely to be embraced by other states. In effect, Maryland’s Smart Growth program is the most promising new tool for managing growth in a generation.

Since 1970, nine states have enacted laws designed to slow haphazard development. Before Maryland’s breakthrough, just two growth management laws have made a real difference.

Vermont’s program, established in 1970 and amended in 1988, gives local governments complete authority to reject development projects — like a giant big box superstore outside of town — that do not enhance the state’s historic integrity or rural character.

Oregon’s program, enacted in 1973, required every municipality to prepare a comprehensive land use plan for future growth and then to draw an “urban growth boundary” around themselves. Development is confined inside the boundary, while land outside is devoted to farms, forests, and natural areas.

By focusing new home, business, and road construction in a more compact area, Oregon’s land use plan has conserved natural resources and preserved 16 million acres of farmland, an area nearly half the size of Michigan. Most importantly, while Oregon’s cities are growing up in population, they are not spreading out in land area.

In the early 1970s, a growth management program similar to Oregon’s was proposed in Michigan. Despite the support of Gov. William G. Milliken, the legislation was soundly defeated for readily apparent reasons.

Oregon’s program established a new state agency to set and enforce planning goals. As a result, the autonomy of local governments was diminished. Michigan has nearly 2,000 local units of government. Few were prepared to relinquish any of their power to the state.

In contrast, Maryland’s Smart Growth program maintains the authority of local governments to oversee uses of land. The program also contains specific provisions that will improve city life and preserve the rural landscape. These include:

  • Changing school construction codes to encourage modernizing or expanding existing schools and discourage building new schools in the countryside.

  • Awarding families $3,000 grants for new mortgages on homes in inner city neighborhoods.

  • Spending up to $140 million during the next five years to preserve 200,000 acres of farm and natural lands.

All told, Maryland has come up with a formula for reining in sprawl that was embraced by both parties, cities and suburbs, farmers, business owners, and the environmental community. Without such a plan, Maryland faced losing 625,000 acres of farm and forest land by 2010, and adding $7 billion more in taxpayer spending on schools, roads, and sewers to accommodate sprawling growth. Similarly grim statistics await Michigan unless the governor and the legislature heed the increasing public clamor for action.

It’s no longer good enough for Michigan lawmakers to say they don’t know how to respond. Maryland has shown the way.

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