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Maryland Has A Model Approach To Stop Sprawl and Invigorate Communities

A breakthrough for slowing sprawl

April 1, 1998 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Ever since the early 1970s, when the Rockefeller Brothers Fund sponsored the first comprehensive study on how suburban sprawl damages cities and the environment, state policymakers have searched for the right mix of incentives and regulations to solve the problem.
Oregon vested power at the state level, requiring local governments to write new land use plans and establish growth boundaries. Vermont, meanwhile, granted local governments the direct authority to preserve the state's rural quality of life.

Now Maryland has devised an approach that is more achievable in this era of suspicion about government regulation. Last year, after two years of research and community organizing, Democratic Gov. Parris Glendening signed the Smart Growth Act. It aims to slow suburban sprawl by using the state's $16 billion annual budget to direct spending for roads, schools, public works and buildings, housing, and other new construction to places that already have been developed. Under the new law, which takes effect in October, state agencies also are instructed to deny funding for new construction in outlying regions.

A Breakthrough
The Smart Growth concept -- investing state subsidies to improve cities, protect farmland, and preserve the environment -- represents a breakthrough in land use planning by linking economics with social policy goals. Passage of the law resulted from an intensive statewide effort by the Glendening Administration to mobilize support among city leaders, public interest organizations, and citizens.

The Smart Growth Act is winning rave reviews from the nation's land use experts. Their response is summed up by William McDonough, dean of the University of Virginia School of Architecture, who calls the Act "the most important new planning and development strategy for the American landscape in a generation."

"This is good policy and good politics," said Gov. Glendening during an interview in the Maryland State House. "It's the type of policy that makes common sense. It saves money. Why should we spend hundreds of millions of dollars to build new schools, and new sewers, and new roads to accommodate sprawl, instead of spending less money to hold communities together that are being abandoned? The answer is we shouldn't. Smart Growth gets us off that track."

Rethinking Economic Investments

As a scholar of government, Mr. Glendening long ago came to understand the role that tax breaks, agency contracts, outdated rules, construction loans, road-building funds, and infrastructure spending play in causing sprawl. From 1970 to 1995 most of Maryland's publicly-financed investments in roads, sewers, housing, and schools were in the distant suburbs of Washington, D.C., and Baltimore. Not surprisingly, many urban residents joined the majority of the 1 million people added to the state's population in that period who moved to the new suburbs.

Moreover, the average suburban lot size doubled. Strip malls proliferated. Traffic jams became a way of life. In the mid-1990s, the departments of transportation in Maryland and Virginia proposed a new multi- billion dollar Outer Beltway to link the new suburbs around Washington and relieve congestion on the first six- to eight-lane Beltway built in the 1960s.

Maryland's cities and inner suburbs, in the meantime, were left behind. From 1970 to 1995, Baltimore lost 213,000 people, 24% of its population. In the older inner suburbs of Montgomery County, Prince Georges County, and Baltimore County the population dropped by more than 207,000.

By 1994 the social costs of sprawl had become such a prominent political issue in Maryland that Gov. Glendening made it one of the central themes of his campaign, promising to set to work on the problem with new thinking. Following his inauguration in 1995, he convened three cabinet meetings to outline the effects of sprawl in Maryland, and to generate ideas.

Building Statewide Support
In May 1996 the Governor took another important step by naming Ron Young to coordinate a statewide effort to gain legislative passage of a growth management bill. As a magazine columnist, former mayor of Frederick, and Deputy Director of the state Office of Planning, Mr. Young was well-suited to the job. He was on a first name basis with many of the municipal officials in Maryland, and he knew how to organize at the grass roots.

"The Governor called me over to his office in Baltimore one afternoon, and said he wanted to do something about sprawl and development," recalls Mr. Young. "He told me about the ideas he had about managing growth. He said he wanted the approach to be from the bottom up. There would be no new money. There would be no new bureaucracy. There would be no state control of land use. And he wanted me to organize a public information program to get this done."


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