After decades of effort, the voluntary, collaborative approach to restoring the health and vitality of the Chesapeake Bay— the largest estuary in the United States—has not worked and, in fact, is failing. A diverse group of 57 senior scientists and policymakers have joined forces to save the Bay. This is our plan.

“Smart Growth” in Maryland–Not So Smart

(Posted by Gerald Winegrad)

No matter how one scores it, the Chesapeake Bay is still in trouble. We’ve done the easy things. Now, if we want to restore the bay and save our natural heritage, we must do the most difficult tasks. Among these critical elements are the necessity to limit population growth and related sprawl development and prevent the loss of forest land and wetlands.

These essential tasks demand that we change the way we do business as population in the Chesapeake’s watershed continues to grow—and sprawl. The population more than doubled from 8.1 million in 1950 to 17 million now. There are 3.6 million more people since the Bay Program began in 1983. Demographers expect 3 million more by 2030.

We also consume more land per capita. And we harden more land. From 1990 to 2000, the population grew by 8 percent, while impervious surfaces—paving and roofs—grew by 41 percent.

Policies to channel growth into existing towns and cities aren’t working. Instead of growing where schools, transportation, and utilities exist, we are growing into forest and fields. In Maryland, “Smart Growth” is the favored approach and it is failing.

The resultant sprawl and spread of impervious surfaces is bad for the Bay. Storm water runoff flushes pollutants to streams and changes their natural flow. It was the only source of water pollution still increasing. While significant funding to clean up runoff from existing urban areas is needed, we need to stem the poor growth and consumptive land use that leads to choking the bay and ourselves in traffic.

Smart Growth

Let’s examine the Smart Growth. Recent studies document the lack of success with this much-touted program. Defenders of this soft-approach to managing sprawl continue to gloss over the reality: Smart Growth in Maryland has not worked and is a failed approach. By continuing to foster false expectations for a program that has resulted in Dumb Growth, the apologists and those opposed to making real change in the way we develop in Maryland ignore the harsh reality.

The signature element of Smart Growth—withholding of some of the state’s infrastructure dollars from development occurring outside county designated Priority Funding Areas—has been an abject failure. Thirteen years after the enactment of Smart Growth, this non-regulatory approach has had no discernible impact on curbing sprawling development, fostering better land use, or protecting open spaces. Even the Rural Legacy program under Smart Growth has not led to better protection of designated open space areas of fields and forests.

The reality is that over the last few years, every detailed published report—and Maryland Office of Planning’s own data—document that environmentally destructive development patterns in Maryland have either continued at their pre-1987 levels or worsened. In a 2009 study, scholars at the University of Maryland National Center for Smart Growth concluded that “There is no evidence after ten years that [smart-growth laws] have had any effect on development patterns….Overall, the trends in parcels, acres, and size of parcels developed for residential use are not consistent with Priority Funding Area (PFA) objectives.”

Another analysis released by some of the same scholars and John Frece (Governor Glendening’s Smart Growth Director) in October 2007 for a conference assessing Smart Growth after ten years concluded: “While the idea that the state should not underwrite urban sprawl remains valid, the hope that the state budget could be used to curtail urban sprawl has not been fulfilled.” The authors concluded that Smart Growth as structured in Maryland was so flawed that tinkering at the edges was not recommended, and a newer, more regulatory approach was necessary.

The State of Maryland’s own data details the failure: 78 percent of the land on which new homes were built from 1999-2008 was outside the Priority Funding Areas designated for growth. This compares to 75.6 percent from 1990-1998 before the law went into effect. More single family residential housing was developed outside Smart Growth areas than before the law was enacted. Further, the average amount of land used by each home built inside growth zones has crept upward.

The result of these abject failures, Dumb Growth, is not simply academic. The cost to the state is daunting as sprawling development cripples the state financially, socially, and environmentally. Many urban areas, such as Baltimore City, continue to lose population. Of Maryland’s 157 municipalities, 40 lost population from 2000 to 2009 and 61 others had a population increase of less than 100 while the state’s population grew by 7.6 percent. The failure to control damaging sprawl sucks the life out of many of our existing urban areas causing the closures of schools, libraries, fire stations, and difficulties in maintaining existing infrastructure while new schools, libraries, fire stations, and roads must be built in suburban and ex-urban areas to accommodate the poor land use decisions made by local governments.

The environmental consequences are equally severe: more impervious surfaces and stormwater runoff, more air emissions from more auto use and longer commutes, and less forest land to protect the Bay’s creeks and streams.

Smart Growth Maryland-style uses some state financial resources–such as highway and sewer funding–as incentives to alter development behavior. The absolute control over land use was preserved for the counties and municipalities. Like many other efforts to restore Chesapeake Bay, this was a politically “safe” approach that did not arouse the fervid opposition by local governments and the development community that real land use change would.

Under Governor Martin O’Malley, a Task Force on the Future for Growth and Development in Maryland was appointed but they have chosen to erroneously focus on tweaking Smart Growth, taking the path of least resistance to a failed approach. Labeling these initiatives “Smart, Green, and Growing” does not make them so.

Defenders of the current system mention the strides in protecting more open space acreage in the last four years, but this has nothing to do with the Smart Growth initiatives. It’s a direct result of Governor O’Malley commendably fully utilizing the property transfer tax dedicated to funding Program Open Space, a program begun in 1969.

What Maryland needs is a tough new approach to land use that curbs urban sprawl and protects forests including a no net loss of forest policy and an approach that does not allow any new pollution from development. Tinkering with this Dumb Growth approach or waiting 20 more years to see if things work any better will have catastrophic impacts on our state.

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