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Maryland Has Model Approach To Stop Sprawl

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

Mr. Young and his staff launched the campaign within a week by sending letters to every local government, trade association, public interest group, property owners group, and neighborhood organization they could find. The letters invited them to participate in writing new legislation, and urged them to send ideas and suggestions.

Through the summer of 1996 Mr. Young and his staff spent hours making follow up calls. As a result there was a satisfyingly high response rate. All the comments were compiled in a 100-page booklet, "Neighborhood Conservation/Smart Growth: We Asked, You Proposed," which was sent in September to all the participants for additional review.

During the fall Mr. Young and several other state officials took to the road with a public information program, which they presented more than 400 times.

Meanwhile, Gov. Glendening worked hand in hand with a group of aides at the State House to review the responses in the booklet. Acting as scholar one moment, quarterback the next, Gov. Glendening coaxed his staff to devise a new governing premise that united the redevelopment of cities and towns with protection of farmland and natural areas. During the brainstorming sessions the group broke through conventional thinking -- that is, to throw money at the problem, or to issue restrictive land use rules -- and hit on the essential core concept of directing state economic investments to turn things around. (See the article on page 8.)

Then it was time to go public with the proposal. "We were in the conference room one day and people were talking about how to market this package," Gov. Glendening said. "We're all throwing out ideas. Somebody said well this is smarter planning. Another said this is smarter growth. A third person said no, it's smart growth. Aah. There it is. We've got a name."

Passing the Law
Having rallied organizations from across the political spectrum to support the Smart Growth Initiative, Mr. Glendening in January 1997 introduced a package of bills in the Maryland General Assembly.

He was confident the bills would pass. In promoting them to local governments and developers he had emphasized that Smart Growth does not restrict development, nor does it intrude in any way on local authority to oversee uses of land. It does not add new layers of bureaucracy and more government. It does not mandate regional planning, growth boundaries, confusing zoning, or prescriptive land use rules that have proved politically troublesome in other states. Smart Growth simply means that the state won't use taxpayer money to subsidize building new subdivisions, new malls, new schools, or new roads in outlying areas, but will direct public resources close to existing cities and towns.

Even with the coalition-building, there was still some opposition.
Dru Schmidt-Perkins, state director of Clean Water Action, which has 50,000 members in Maryland, said the environmental community pressed to make the package stronger. They wanted to increase funds for land preservation, institute tougher restrictions on development around the Chesapeake Bay, and require communities to establish urban growth boundaries.

The environmentalists were challenged by developers, who allied themselves with the Maryland Association of Counties to weaken the proposal's reach. They wanted to enlarge the "Priority Funding Areas" (see the article on page 9) so that virtually any place in Maryland would be eligible for state economic investments, thus rendering the legislation meaningless. The developers succeeded in enlarging the Priority Funding Areas, but not so much that the law would lose its effectiveness. The General Assembly voted its approval in April 1997, and the following month the bills were signed into law by the Governor.

Implementing Smart Growth
By any measure, the implementation of the Smart Growth program this fall will be difficult. The law requires levels of cooperation among state agencies, especially the Department of Transportation, that are uncommon except in times of emergency. It is not clear to state officials how many counties will have defined their Priority Funding Areas by October 1. And disputes are certain to arise when local governments are denied state funding for construction projects outside designated areas.

Administration officials say they are prepared for lawsuits, which are not unusual when government policies change. Traditionally the courts have played a crucial role in interpreting and defining new laws, as they did in the 1960s with education and civil rights programs, and in the 1970s with environmental protections.

There are indications, though, that Smart Growth already has inspired state and local government officials:

  • Talbot County recently withdrew a proposal to build a new courthouse outside of Easton. The Glendening Administration worked with county officials and convinced them that since state funds would be involved, modernizing and enlarging the existing downtown courthouse made better sense.
  • A new state office building also is planned for downtown Cumberland, in western Maryland. It is the first major construction project in the central city since World War Two.
  • And in March Gov. Glendening announced he would not support allocations of public funds or any other policies to build the Outer Beltway proposed for the suburbs of Washington, D.C. He said it was a waste of money, would accelerate sprawl, and that there are less damaging and expensive alternatives to deal with traffic congestion.

"It just makes sense," said Gov. Glendening. "People 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."

CONTACTS:John W. Frece, Maryland Special Assistant to the Governor for Smart Growth. Tel. 410-260- 8112, fax 410-260-8111; Ronald N. Young, Maryland Office of Planning. Tel. 410-767-4505, fax 410-767- 4480; Dru Schmidt-Perkins, Clean Water Action. Tel. 410-235-8808, fax 410-235-8816.

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