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The Bigger Picture – Life and Death of MD Smart Growth

“Our task is simply…to arrange the pieces in a constructive way with a decent respect for man and nature instead of improvising frantically and impulsively with each new thrust of growth as if it were a gigantic surprise beyond our capacity to predict or manage.” ~ James Rouse (1967), prominent real estate developer


Every once in awhile it’s refreshing to step back and take stock of the broader picture. We have the great fortune, after spending a substantial amount of time researching the issues that surround development, to be able to draw on a wide array of ideas and trying to come to some basic conclusions. With the start of the new year, recent and expected political realignments across the board at the local, state and national level, and RTCP’s 2 year anniversary rapidly approaching, it seems like now is as good of time as any to look back and, more importantly, look forward.

The History

In 1997, Maryland, the fifth most densely populated state in the nation, boldly set out on a new course for development. Enough political agreement had accumulated to pass one of the county’s most aggressive anti-sprawl packages ever Ansel Adams - Freewaysenacted by a state legislature. The 1997 Smart Growth and Neighborhood Conservation Act encouraged brownfield redevelopment, gave housing assistance for people to live near their work, prioritized and funded the protection of “Rural Legacy Lands”, and, most importantly, locally agreed upon “priority funding areas”(PFAs) where state money was approved to fund infrastructure.In effect, they wanted to encourage counties to plan for how and where to accommodate growth, stop subsidizing the meat and potatoes of sprawl (like roads, water, and sewer) and shift those burdens to developers and new homebuyers should they decide to ignore priority areas.

The strategy favored incentives over regulation and its champions, including then-governor Parris Glenndening, avoided a politically costly confrontation with the state’s powerful counties by refusing to wrestle any true planning authority from local government. Maryland’s highly touted program “Smart Growth” agenda became a model for other rapidly growing states, yet 10 years since its creation, experts seriously question the efficacy of even its strongest provisions.

Is it Working?

Most planners agree, including those at UMD’s National Center for Smart Growth, that the state’s programs are marginal at best and the most far reaching of them – the system of focused state infrastructure investment (PFAs) – has failed to really achieve any of the goals of the 1997 legislation:

  • Mix Land Uses
  • Take advantage of compact building design
  • Create housing opportunities and choices
  • Create walkable communities
  • Foster distinctive, attractive communities with a strong sense of place
  • Preserve open space, farmland, natural beauty, and critical environmental areas
  • Strengthen and direct development toward existing communities
  • Provide a variety of transportation choices
  • Make development decisions predictable, fair, and cost-effective
  • Encourage community and stakeholder collaboration in development decisions.

PFAs have proven to be an inherently weak urban containment tool (see PFA Maps). While most would agree that its for the better that the state doesn’t subsidize sprawl, developers and local governments picked up right where the state left off in 1997 and have been building heavily outside of PFAs. A 2005 MD Department of Planning (MDP) study reveals that between 1990 and 2004, about one-forth of households consumed three-forths of all land developed and that the average lot size outside of PFAs was 8.5 times larger than lots inside the PFAs. The trend was most pronounced in rural counties where MDP found that in Cecil County, 92% of development (in terms of acreage) occurred outside PFAs, while that number was 88% in both St. Mary’s and Charles County, and 84% in Queen Anne’s County. Even in densely populated PG County, a county with a huge PFA area, the percentage of developed acres AND parcels has been steadily increasing outside of PFAs in recent years. Statewide, as a percentage of developed parcels, development has actually increased outside of PFAs since the adoption of Smart Growth legislation in 1997. It’s a mixed bag on an acreage basis, with percentage of developed acres (outside PFAs) remaining relatively constant from 1990-2005. This all signals that sprawl-style development is alive and well, especially in those counties/areas with the most abundant natural resources and the least preparation, from a public infrastructure perspective, to accommodate growth.


A Cruel Disparity

Land preservation programs have proven to be incredibly popular statewide and nationally, yet a mirror effort to foster development in existing communities has few champions. The process in Maryland is straightforward – parcels meeting specific criteria are targeted, willing landowners are sought out, and deals are brokered to either purchase properties outright or purchase easement that permanently prevents development. Together these programs with local initiatives have protected more than 20% of Maryland’s 6.2 million acres. The State of Maryland continues to commit to protecting more land than is developed each year.

Green Infrastructure in Inner MD suburbs

Yet these programs aren’t usually coupled with local zoning, thus allowing fragmentation of key conservation lands and irreversibly altering landscapes before conservation funding becomes available. Conservation funding isn’t sufficient to compete on a level playing field with developers and only in rare instances are developers able to overcome NIMBYism and build in densely populated ares. The forces of NIMBYism that stop, slow, or push growth at the local level are one of the forces responsible for causing growth in the outer reaches of the metropolitan region.

It’s a dire situation considering that the US Census predicts an influx of 1.5 million new residents in the state by 2030, which would mean another 580,000 households and 810,000 new jobs. The battles over sprawl aren’t fought just at the urban periphery, they are fought in a thousand different decisions in our cities and inner-suburban areas. What’s needed is political constituency that fights as vigorously for quality dense infill projects in existing communities as some groups do against sprawling development proposals in rural areas. Environmentalists are the natural constituency to fight against the latter. Unfortunately, in the case of the former as Dr. William Fischel of Dartmouth University points out: “Rarely are the social benefits of infill, higher densities, and especially regional institutional change sufficiently compelling as to draw the support of this dominant constituency.”

‘‘People like to say they’re for Smart Growth. They don’t always realize it means higher density and more mass transit and a more thoughtful process of development. Those all take more time and effort. But you end up with a higher quality of life.” ~ Mark Cook, College Park City Councilperson

The Anecdotal Evidence

*The Good*

—> As noted, overall Maryland’s land preservation programs have been fairly successful.

—> The State is now vigorously enforcing its 1984 Critical Area Law, which regulates development withing 1,000 feet of the bay and its tributaries. Note the rejection of the “Blackwater Resort” project on the Eastern Shore, a controversy which is probably responsible for a recent planned strengthening of the law.

—> Local experimentations such as Progressive planning and zoning in Baltimore County (Urban-Rural Demarcation Line), nationally renowned planning in Mongomery County, and a national model for Transferabe Development Rights in Calvert County.

*The Bad*

—> Inter County Connector and Route 32 – both exempted from Maryland Smart Growth Laws, are approved, and entering the construction phase. These two highways together, effectively bring limited access highways (a piecemeal resurrection of the 1970s outer beltway proposal) for the entire Baltimore-Washington corridor.

—> Residents of Columbia expect their downtown to be included in the eventual Green Line extension to BWI, but refuse to accept the requisite density to push the alignment their way.

—> Cataclysmic redevelopments (Silver Spring, Rockville Town Center, East Campus) come with many promises and heavy public financing demands, but the results can be less than desirable. Heavy on parking, poor pedestrian scaling, and about as organic as a Twinkie. Below is an illustration for a portion of the more than 5,700 parking spaces proposed at East Campus, here contained in two large underground garages.
Jan14_Presentation (48 pages)

*The (pretty) Ugly*

—> Purple Line: UMD and general NIMBYism throughout route. A small group of project opponents along the route have dominated recent discourse, despite the tremendous benefit it would bring to the region. The University of Maryland, a supposedly progressive-minded academic institution, jumped into the fray with their own alignment proposals and political games, challenging both state planning and the university’s own Master Plan.

—> More than 10 years after the completion of the green line, Prince George’s county has yet to develop most of its Metro stations. See this post on Metro developments and info about why there’s no dense development at the West Hyattsville station.

—> Visitors to Baltimore are encouraged by its apparent revitalization. Yet trips to the Inner Harbor and Baltimore’s recently gentrified inner historic neighborhoods cover up the fact that the city continues to hemmorage in terms of total population and housing vacancy as whole is still rising.

—> The real estate market has gone the way of the capital markets and several already approved projects are recieving higher scrutiny from lenders. What College Park project plans will crumble?

Purple Line Multimodal

What’s So Special About College Park?

We’ve been asking one simple question since this site launced in the Summer of 2006 – If not here, then where? Considering College Park proximity to the booming Washington, D.C. real estate market and its location in a state renowned for its Smart Growth initiatives, we have a wide variety of capital, expertise and experience to draw upon. Consider the wealth of nearby planning and development case studies as proof that this region is at the forefront of urban planning and design – Greenbelt, Ballston (VA), Columbia (MD), the Kentlands (MD), Mongomery County planning department, and Reston (VA). For such a small city, College Park has had astounding access to resources – years and years of thoughtful planning initiatives (perhaps too thoughtful), an EPA technical assistance team, the National Center for Smart Growth, the University’s Architecture school, and the Smart and Sustainable Campuses Conference, among other collaborations. Add to that, the fact that College Towns are resoundingly pedestrian places and you begin to wonder: If we can’t grow smarter in College Park is Smart Growth hopeless?


In the 1700s we swept away the largely forested Maryland landscape, which was shaped by eons of natural forces and 30,000 years of Native Americans influence. We replaced that landscape with a new regime of increasingly mechanized agriculture. Then suddenly in the 1950’s, with the help of the interstate highways, cheap energy and automobiles, the FHA, and the mortgage interest deduction, we found ourselves using our farms to grow houses, people, and fortunes rather than crops. Now 50 years of subdiving, speculating, and expanding to the far reaches of the metropolitan region has brought our towns to an unthinkable limits of distance from job centers (see development patterns in MD over the years). Today we are faced with a new reality – one of low density, pervasive sprawl, hour-long commutes, a rapidly growing population, and the harsh reality of limited opportunities for new highway capacity. Now we’re presented with yet another bout of huge changes and two distinctly separate courses – do we focus on infill sites in the suburbs to make way for high density redevelopment or do we continue to decentralize our homes, our jobs, and our communities at the expense of our quality of life?

Should we amend our Smart Growth legislation? Probably. It’s clear that changes in prices and incentives are necessary, butUniversity View towering over the Northgate Development District not sufficient to achieve more compact development. Changes in coordination, planning, and zoning are necessary, but not sufficient for building more livable, transit-friendly urban environments. Atrociously poor funding of public goods and infrastructure combined with our impossible expectations of developers have created a situation where the constraints to building in dense urban areas act to propel development. What people need to realize is that there are real cost constraints to development projects. Shallow lot sizes, expensive land, burdensome and unpredictable approval processes make infill development expensive, risky, and difficult. What’s paramount in planning new structures and their retail spaces is how they relate to the sidewalks, streets, and the general surroundings. When we look at the bigger picture, specific architectural styles, building materials, traffic concerns, bedroom and parking ratios, and environmental features no longer seem so important and in many cases present regulatory constraints to achieving the desired built environment. We have to ask ourselves: How can we expect more infill development if we expect too much of infill developers?

The balkanization of planning decisions leads to a veritable race to the bottom where those jurisdictions with the most lax rules end up with the most quantitative – but qualitatively poor – growth. Regional decision-making, like many planners advocate for, leads to less democracy and public participation, and a system destined to crumble under its own design. There’s the rub – how do you design a system with more public participation, more home rule, and more dense development, while avoiding the tendency for growth and development to migrate to those places least prepared for it?

I’m comfortable in saying that we’ve proven here at Rethink College Park that changes in bottom up understanding and information are not peripheral, but essential to rethinking how we handle development. There is no need to build consensus around the fact that places like Route 1 need dense development – that consensus already exists. The central theme we see running through everything we blog about here is that politics and planning make strange bedfellows. So we’ve experimented with different combinations of advocacy, journalism, politics, and planning – all to varying degrees of success. Confronting NIMBYism, facilitating stakeholder understanding, and overcoming the political vagueness of planning decisions. Rethink College Park has been our attempt to fill these functions – all of which have no clear place in existing institutions. We believe they are a critical pieces of the puzzle to realizing smart growth.

“The architects of power in the United States must create a force that can be felt but not seen. Power remains strong when it remains in the dark; exposed to the sunlight it begins to evaporate.” ~ Samuel P. Huntington

Inspiration provided by…

—> Rob Goodspeed and his unparalleled expertise on the importance of hyperlocal blogging to urban planning

—> Dr. Gerrit Knaap‘s “Requiem for Smart Growth”

Cross-posted from Rethink College Park

One comment on “The Bigger Picture – Life and Death of MD Smart Growth

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This entry was posted on February 5, 2008 by in Maryland.
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