Stop the presses: A new report finds that Maryland's 15-year-old Smart Growth law isn't working very well.
That's hardly news. The state's own data have shown for years that more land continues to be developed for homes in the countryside instead of in urbanized areas, where growth is meant to go under the 1997 law.
But the report issued Wednesday by the National Center for Smart Growth Research and Education at the University of Maryland offers some key explanations for why development keeps sprawling - and some recommendations for turning things around. The survey was commissioned by a group representing commercial real estate developers and the Maryland State Builders Association.
In a survey of 47 developers, local planners and advocates from community groups and nonprofits, the College Park center found that most believe the law's tools for encouraging denser development are too weak to overcome neighborhood opposition, inadequate infrastructure and regulatory barriers. The vast majority of those surveyed say it's still easier to build outside "priority funding areas," as growth zones are called under the law, than in them. High-rise apartments and mixed-use development - the ultimate in "smart growth" to many advocates - are among the most difficult projects to build, oddly enough.
There was some disagreement on the reasons for that. Most planners and developers fingered the state's recently tightened rules for controlling storm-water pollution from development as a leading hindrance, while relatively few advocates saw that as a major problem. Builders and local officials raised a furor about the regulations when they were first imposed, but did succeed in getting the state to ease requirements for curbing runoff from redevelopment, over the bitter opposition of many environmental activists.
Another oft-cited stumbling block jumped out - lack of infrastructure. That would seem counterintuitive, as Smart Growth is meant to encourage redevelopment, where roads, water and sewer already exist. But those surveyed said public facilities in urbanized areas often were in such poor shape that they required costly repairs or replacement.
"We're not building the infrastructure for smart growth," said Gerrit J. Knaap, director of the UM center.
The survey also suggested that local officials still pay relatively little heed to the Smart Growth law in mapping out development plans for their jurisidictions. Planners said areas targeted for growth in their counties often don't correspond with the "priority funding areas" drawn under the law, where state funds for public services are supposed to be concentrated.
That apparent disconnect may help explain the ferocity of local officials' resistance to "PlanMaryland," with some rural politicians accusing the O'Malley administration of waging "war on rural Maryland." Among other things, the state growth plan is intended to do a better job of directing state spending to urbanized areas, potentially squeezing out wiggle room that still allows public expenditures outside of so-called priority funding areas.
Whatever the case, if Smart Growth is to work, Knaap said, "To the extent possible, we've got to get the state and local governments on the same page."
State Planning Secretary Richard E. Hall says the UM study contains no surprises for him, though he disagrees on one point, contending that all but two counties adhere to "priority funding areas" in setting theiir own growth zones.
Hall doesn't dispute the main problem, though, is that it's still too easy to develop in places other than where it's planned to go. Toward that end, the O'Malley administration is preparing to make another run at restricting developing on septic systems, particularly in rural areas not targeted for growth.
"We need to level that playing field," the planning secretary said. "We need to make it easier to do the right thing, and not so easy to do the wrong thing."
To read the report and its recommendations, go here.