washingtonpost.com  > Metro > Special Reports > Growth
The Limits of Smart Growth

Planners' Brains vs. Public's Brawn

Neighbors' Hostility to Dense Projects Impairs Md. Land Preservation

By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 10, 2004; Page A01

Last of three articles

Maple Lawn Farms and its picturesque rolling fields sit three miles south of Columbia and midway between the converging metropolitan areas of Baltimore and Washington. A six-lane highway, Route 29, runs by one side, and the property is wrapped on three sides by subdivisions.

There is no question that the farm and its grain silo, barns and pastures will soon give way to suburbia. The only question is what kind of development should rise in its place.

The Maple Lawn Farms Community in Howard County is designated a smart-growth area suited for high-density development, but its density will be well below both what was originally projected and smart-growth norms. (Ricky Carioti -- The Washington Post)

_____Growth and Development_____
Washington's Road to Outward Growth (The Washington Post, Aug 9, 2004)
Space for Employers, Not for Homes (The Washington Post, Aug 8, 2004)
Arrival of Metro Could Transform Tysons (The Washington Post, Aug 7, 2004)
Loudoun Looks at Settling Lawsuits (The Washington Post, Jul 27, 2004)
Md. Panel Backs Study Of Rte. 32 Widening (The Washington Post, Jul 22, 2004)
More Stories
_____Free E-mail Newsletters_____
• News Headlines
• News Alert

To Maryland's state planners and leading environmental groups, the 508-acre site is ideally suited for "smart growth." Besides its convenient location, the property has access to water and sewer lines and lies within walking distance of three schools. They envision something like a town: a cluster of shops, offices, apartments and homes at a minimum density of about four to five homes per acre.

Yet it isn't going to turn out that way.

As has often happened under Maryland's celebrated smart-growth program, which calls for building compactly in "smart-growth areas" such as Maple Lawn Farms to preserve land elsewhere, neighborhood protesters opposed the project for being too big and too dense. And contested projects like Maple Lawn Farms are a major reason that the innovative program enacted seven years ago has yet to make a significant dent in Maryland's sprawling building patterns.

Under pressure from neighborhood groups, county planners had designated the Maple Lawn property for no more than three homes per acre, or about 1,524 houses, a typical suburban density. When a specific development was proposed, vehement local opposition whittled the project down, first to 1,372 homes, then to 1,168 and finally to 1,116, or a density of 2.2 homes per acre, well below smart-growth norms.

Neighbors of the Howard County project contend that like other portions of metropolitan Washington, they're struggling with crowded roads and schools and want to preserve as much open space as they can in their neighborhoods.

"Each and every Fulton Manor homeowner spent a considerable amount of money to buy their property, build their dream home and raise their families in an idyllic country setting," John D. Morton, president of a nearby homeowners association, wrote in a typical plea to the county's Zoning Board during its deliberations on Maple Lawn Farms. "Today our dreams appear to be turning into a nightmare."

Planners say that reducing the size of Maple Lawn Farms will lead developers responding to a continuing demand for housing to build their projects in the fields and woods smart growth was designed to preserve. But even the former chairman of the Howard County chapter of the Sierra Club, which as a national organization advocates smart growth, objected to the Maple Lawn project. He lives about a mile away and said he preferred a development with fewer homes.

"My area has mostly five acre or larger lots," Dennis Luck said in testimony filed with the Zoning Board. "We expected to see the area population grow with like development."

Maple Lawn Farms developer Stewart Greenebaum did not even try to build the 1,500 houses planners had envisioned at the site. Nonetheless, he acknowledged: "We were pummeled."

The Case for Density

If suburban sprawl and the ills it has been associated with -- air and water pollution, more driving, the fracturing of natural landscapes, even the national obesity problem -- have a solution, planners say it lies in focusing development into denser citylike or townlike settlements while leaving other areas untouched.

Residents could live, work and shop within these settlements, which by their compactness would cut down on driving. Mass transit, which often struggles to attract riders amid suburban sprawl, would become more practical.

CONTINUED    1 2 3 4 5    Next >

© 2004 The Washington Post Company