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Planners' Brains vs. Public's Brawn

It's either that, planners say, or more development scattered wastefully across the landscape.

"If we do not take steps to change our growth patterns," then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) announced as he unveiled his smart-growth program in 1997, "the beautiful Maryland that we all love will be nothing more than a beautiful memory."

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)

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Glendening traces his thinking on land development to 1967 when, as a college student working a summer job in Miami, he watched glumly as subdivision after subdivision rose amid the Everglades. His concerns were compounded when, early in his political career, as a Hyattsville City Council member, he found himself repeatedly on the losing side of sprawl's outward surge.

He'd hoped to lure investors to the city to revitalize Route 1, a stretch of drab used-car lots and abandoned fast-food franchises. But developers told him over and over that they would rather buy farmland farther out to develop. "It didn't make sense," he said.

After his inauguration as governor in 1995, Glendening began casting about for a way to address sprawl and its impact: traffic jams, air pollution and the abandonment of cities.

He said he considered but quickly rejected as politically impossible a heavier regulatory approach such as Oregon's, which required cities to designate strict growth boundaries. He settled instead on a program largely based on incentives to developers. The incentives would come from the state, which would focus its spending for development infrastructure -- roads, water, sewer and schools -- in the smart-growth areas designated by local governments.

"We wanted to change the bottom line for developers," Glendening said. "We wanted to make it so that you didn't have to be a very bright businessman to know it was better to invest in a smart-growth area."

To win passage despite fierce opposition from Maryland's counties, Glendening and his planners were forced to compromise. The required densities in smart-growth areas, for example, are not as high as they would have liked. But the plan's passage was hailed as a milestone and touted by environmental groups across the country, largely because it created a statewide framework for the emerging smart-growth movement.

"At the time, I think it was a breakthrough," said David Goldberg, communications director for Smart Growth America, a nonprofit group that lobbies nationally for the concept. "Oregon's state planning is far and away the most comprehensive and probably the most effective. But Maryland's smart-growth program is next in line."

A review of key state and local planning records, however, shows no significant shifts in Maryland's development patterns since the passage of Glendening's smart-growth package. Growth still takes place where there was nothing, rather than where it has gone before.

Leading up to 1997, when the program began, about 75 percent of the land consumed by home building in Maryland was cut from pastures, woods and other parcels outside of the smart-growth areas. In 2001, the last year for which statewide data are available, the percentage was almost exactly the same, according to Maryland Department of Planning records.

More current development information gathered from five fast-growing Maryland counties similarly suggests no overall shift. In St. Mary's and Charles counties, the percentage of lots or building permits approved outside the smart-growth areas has been higher in recent years. In Howard and Frederick, there is no clear trend. Statistics were not available from Calvert.

Home building continues to consume roughly 25 square miles of Maryland landscape every year.

Some of the program's supporters argue that it may be premature to fully judge it because so many of today's building projects won initial approval before the new laws.

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