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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.

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.

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."

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.

"It's too early to see a shift," said Douglas R. Porter, president of the Growth Management Institute, a nonprofit group based in Chevy Chase doing research and education. "It takes too many years for projects to work through the system."

But an unreleased November 2002 memo from Glendening's planners to the team of incoming Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) raised questions about the program's effectiveness.

"The rate at which farm and forest land is being developed has not slowed," the memo said. "Our current smart growth laws and programs may not be sufficient to overcome the many obstacles that have made sprawl the dominant form of development."

As they were leaving office, Glendening's planners wrote that "although it may be too early to expect measurable changes in most areas, it is not too soon to start looking."

They saw "only modest progress" in reining in sprawl, but they did not pin the blame on developers. Instead, the report cited the pressure of neighbors' opposition to smart-growth projects, citing the "electoral backlash against local candidates seen as too indiscriminately favorable to rampant growth."

"Local officials are often stuck between a rock and a hard place," said Harriet Tregoning, special secretary in the Office of Smart Growth under Glendening. "Even when they want to put density in the right places, people will say they're in the pocket of developers. And it's hard, given our track record over the last 60 years, to tell people, 'Trust me.' "

At the local government level, plans to build homes or businesses in smart-growth areas have routinely been diluted or rejected. A development deemed a growth area by planners in Baltimore County was originally intended to have more than 11,000 homes. But fewer than half that number will be built after opposition forced developers to reduce the number of apartments.

The Fairwood development, rising on 1,059 acres in a smart-growth area in Bowie, was whittled down amid local opposition to a density of about 1.7 homes per acre.

But opposition to denser development is hardly confined to Maryland. Residential and retail projects around Metro stations -- considered ideal locations for smart growth because they would encourage using mass transit -- have been killed or scaled back because of neighborhood opposition in Takoma Park, Tenleytown and East Falls Church, and a project by Federal Realty in Bethesda has been delayed for years.

Many other smart-growth possibilities are killed even before they get to a proposal because master plans do not permit enough density. In the Briarwood section of Fairfax County, a site viewed by planners as logical for more homes because it lies about a half-mile from the Vienna Metro station, the county plan forbids apartments and townhouses.

"The neighborhood said they wanted single-family detached homes there," said Linda Q. Smyth (D-Providence), the Fairfax County supervisor for the area.

As a result, the developer is building at densities ranging from fewer than three homes per acre to slightly more than four homes per acre.

"It's a classic example," said Craig Havenner, president of Christopher Cos., the developer. "There is a housing shortage. But what might have been best for the region as a whole was not acceptable to the existing community."

Critics of smart growth contend that the basis for neighborhood opposition is elemental and immovable: Most Americans prefer fewer neighbors and won't willingly live in or tolerate the construction of denser neighborhoods.

"People generally prefer to live with a little bit more space and the mobility that only the car gives them," said Wendell Cox, one of the movement's most noted critics. He derides smart growth as "the opiate of the planners."

"That is a very difficult problem for people who believe we should live in higher densities to solve. In fact, it's impossible."

In this, he echoes some county leaders in Maryland who continue to question smart-growth objectives.

"Smart growth is inconsistent with the American dream of a big home on a five-acre lot," said David Bliden, executive director of the Maryland Association of Counties, which opposed Glendening's effort as an unreasonable intrusion into counties' power to regulate building. "The concept of a higher authority, of a Big Brother, is inconsistent with the democratic principles that have to be intertwined with land use management."

Advocates of smart growth argue that better-designed neighborhoods -- such as the fashionable neo-traditional towns with nostalgic architecture sprouting at Kentlands in Gaithersburg -- will make denser neighborhoods not only tolerable but also attractive to home buyers.

In an interview at his offices at the Smart Growth Leadership Institute, where he consults with government officials about smart-growth issues, Glendening acknowledged the difficulties facing the program but also noted its achievements.

Among them: The state spent more than $130 million acquiring nearly 52,000 acres of rural land for preservation; hundreds of millions of state school construction dollars were shunted toward established towns and cities rather than rural areas; some counties -- notably, Wicomico, Calvert and Washington -- have strengthened restrictions on developing rural land.

The program's most significant achievement, he said, was one of consciousness.

"We made it a public issue -- that's probably the most important thing," he said. "Episodically, you can point to all kinds of successes. . . . [But] we did not get here -- meaning sprawl and the abandonment of existing communities -- we did not get here overnight. The nation worked very hard for 60 years to develop the system that we've got. . . . So it's like changing the course of the Queen Elizabeth. You can just barely see it start to move."

Aside from the power of local opposition to undo smart growth, critics have pointed out other problems. Some local governments mapped smart-growth areas on land that should have been preserved as rural. Others, after choosing sensible smart-growth boundaries, made it too easy for developers to build in the natural areas outside them.

But if there's one thing that developers, home builders and environmentalists can agree on, it's that the financial incentives for developing inside the smart-growth areas have proved too weak.

"I don't think the dollars ever flowed in the amounts they needed to flow," said David Flanagan of Elm Street Development, a firm that has developed projects inside and outside smart-growth areas. "The idea behind smart growth was probably sound, but the execution and funding. . . . I think the rate of sprawl is faster today than I've ever seen it."

The smart-growth laws are still on the books, and Ehrlich last fall announced his own program intended to revitalize Maryland's cities. "It has always been in the Ehrlich administration's plans to build upon the smart-growth program by preserving its core mission: to encourage redevelopment of older communities and neighborhoods," said Shareese N. DeLeaver, a spokeswoman for the governor.

But in other ways, Ehrlich has not seemed committed to the program or its goals. He has eliminated the job of smart-growth secretary, a Cabinet-level position under Glendening. And environmentalists cite Ehrlich's support for road projects such as the intercounty connector and the widening of Route 32 in Howard County as evidence of his lack of commitment.

"We do hear a lot of rhetoric," said Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of 1000 Friends of Maryland, an environmental group. "But he's creating exemptions in the law that you could drive a truck through, and he has absolutely decimated the funds for acquiring open space."

One Project's Plight

Even before the passage of smart growth, Howard County planners had designated the Maple Lawn Farms property for a combination of offices, shops and homes. Amid neighborhood complaints, the maximum planned density had been set at three homes per acre.

Once the state's smart-growth program passed, Howard County planners designated the area around Maple Lawn Farms as a smart-growth area.

They believed building homes there could relieve development pressure in Howard's more rural areas. A state report had noted that 14 percent of the county's unprotected agricultural land was developed during the 1990s, more than any other Maryland county. The report warned that it "may soon cease to have a viable agriculture industry."

The project was originally designed to include space for offices and shops, and Greenebaum agreed during negotiations with the neighbors that all of it would be laid out according to neo-traditional neighborhood design principles, which emphasize walking over driving. He frequently compared it to Kentlands, a celebrated "new urbanist" community nearby.

"Maple Lawn is an anti-sprawl development," Greenebaum said. "It takes the pressure off of areas that really shouldn't be developed."

But he never persuaded neighbors such as Peter Oswald, who testified against the Maple Lawn project. "I don't accept the hypothesis that these areas are smart for growth," Oswald said. "We need to demonstrate that there are adequate schools and roads before asking people to add to problems they already have."

After 32 public hearings, Maple Lawn is in the beginning stages of construction. When finished, it will have half the density of Kentlands.

"Smart growth is something people want," said Marsha McLaughlin, Howard County's planning director, who had supported more homes on the property. "They just don't want it in their own neighborhood."

Neighbors' objections forced developer Stewart Greenebaum to lower the number of homes planned at Maple Lawn Farms in Howard County.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.