Smart growth bill capitalizes on Maryland transit

Friday, March 11, 2011; 3:40 PM

The Maryland General Assembly may soon make a really smart move toward achieving really smart growth: It could adopt proposed land-use legislation enabling "State Rail Station Overlay Districts."

House Bill 948 would empower local jurisdictions and the state to plan for and permit increased density and more diverse uses within designated areas around rail stations throughout Maryland.

If enacted, the Maryland Department of Planning, in consultation with the Department of Transportation, would collaborate with counties and municipalities to delineate rail-station overlay districts and to make new master plans, design guidelines and development regulations for them. The new plans and regulations would supersede existing zoning, replacing out-of-date concepts and regulations that obstruct desirable, sustainable development.

The SRSOD bill's most basic goal is to foster vibrant, pedestrian-oriented, energy-efficient communities centered on transit. Overlay district development, at appropriately higher densities with mixed uses, would be located within reasonable walking distance of Maryland's rail stations. Of course, what constitutes reasonable walking distance will depend on the agreeability of the walk.

Another laudable goal articulated in the bill is to improve public services and the aesthetic quality of the public realm - streetscapes, open space, civic amenities, architecture - within overlay districts. The bill sets forth urban design aspirations and outlines strategies for financing them. It envisions establishment of dedicated county or municipal amenity funds with revenues derived from state and local allocation of density rights; from taxing private transfers of density rights, and from special SRSOD taxing districts and bonds that would be paid off by new sales tax revenue.

A jurisdiction's amenity fund could pay for improving storm water management infrastructure, street landscaping and lighting, underground utilities, parks, plazas and playgrounds. Funds also could be used for preserving unique structures or protecting valuable natural features.

The SRSOD bill wisely recognizes that each rail station site is unique and that a statewide "one size fits all" planning approach would not work. Sites vary in historic and cultural character, surrounding physical and demographic conditions, vehicle access, topography, climate and economic potential, so planning and regulatory flexibility is essential. The legislation contains no prescriptive standards or quantitative criteria, only the requirement that jurisdictions establish them for each designated SRSOD site.

The legislation anticipates that jurisdictions will implement an efficient design review and development entitlement process. Qualified planning officials and design professionals would evaluate the functional, technical and, equally important, aesthetic quality of proposed projects.

Rational analysis and informed value judgments about urban design, architecture and engineering would guide development - instead of conventional zoning regulations that typically are mute about aesthetics. In fact, a rigorous- but fair and expeditious - review and permitting process motivates project sponsors and architects to strive harder to achieve design excellence.

It seems fitting - and long overdue - for Maryland to enact this smart-growth legislation. After all, the term "smart growth" was first coined in Maryland. Neither a fad nor a political ideology, smart growth is simply shorthand for prudent, sustainable land use and transportation planning guided by principles that planners today universally embrace:

  • Concentrating growth to take advantage of existing infrastructure;
  • Creating compact, mixed-use, walkable neighborhoods with a sense of place and including affordable housing;

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