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Western Md. shows worth of Smart Growth initiative

November 01, 2002|by Gov. Parris N. Glendening

In this season of campaign rhetoric, people have been talking about Smart Growth and the myriad issues Maryland is addressing with its innovative response to urban sprawl. In the midst of this renewed debate, it is important to reiterate what the Smart Growth Initiative is all about and recommit to the goals we set five years ago as we embarked on these reforms.

The need to recast our development patterns is as urgent as ever. For at least half a century, Americans have been moving farther and farther from established cities and towns, and Maryland is no exception. In the last three decades of the 20th century, our population increased by 37 percent, while the amount of land we developed to accommodate all those people grew more than three times as fast, at 124 percent.

The most obvious consequence of all this spreading out has been an alarming loss of green space to subdivisions and strip malls. But there have been other harmful impacts. The extra driving has created severe air quality problems, including 17 Code Red days this past summer when people were advised to limit outdoor activity. The concrete and asphalt crisscrossing our landscape is dumping more polluted runoff into the Chesapeake Bay. Older communities are struggling with boarded-up buildings, crumbling roads and schools and pockets of concentrated poverty.

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Smart Growth, adopted as a series of laws in 1997, is a comprehensive attempt to reverse this trend.

It is not, as critics and cynics sometimes argue, a "no growth" or "slow growth" agenda. Nor is it an anti-suburb, anti-auto movement. Maryland's Smart Growth policies and programs were built around the recognition that growth is inevitable - and vital for a healthy economy. The aim is to provide more choice in housing and transportation, not less. But equally important, Smart Growth acknowledges that the state can no longer afford to support development anywhere and everywhere, at any cost.

We are using fiscal policy and incentives to steer development to places where infrastructure is already in place or planned. Today, state agencies will not fund new highways, sewer plants and other growth-related needs outside existing communities and designated growth areas.

At the same time, we have created a variety of incentives to encourage growth in these Priority Funding Areas, programs such as the historic preservation tax credit, which has seeded rehab projects worth more than $445 million statewide. And we have dramatically increased funding to preserve the state's best farmland and critical natural areas, protecting more than 220,000 acres in just the past five years.

With the full force of the state's $22 billion budget behind it, Smart Growth is making a difference in older communities across the state, from historic downtown Cumberland in Allegany County to metropolitan Baltimore, Maryland's largest city and one of the few nationwide that continued to lose population in the 1990s. In 2000 and 2001 alone, Baltimore attracted about $135 million in private investment in commercial rehab projects tied to the historic tax credit and other incentives. Many of them wouldn't have been financially feasible without state assistance.

In Western Maryland, cities and towns long threatened by sprawl are beginning to benefit from this trend of reinvestment. Hagerstown, in particular, has been energized by downtown redevelopment. In addition to streetscape improvements and other revitalization efforts, the city was among the first to get a state-designated Arts & Entertainment District, with tax breaks aimed at nurturing an arts community. That designation came after the Washington County Arts Council, with the help of a state loan, moved into new offices with an expanded gallery in the downtown district.

The state's most influential commitment came in yet another arena, with the decision to build a new campus for the University System of Maryland in the heart of Hagerstown. When it opens, the students attracted to downtown shops, restaurants and other businesses will help accelerate a turnaround that began with an influx of state, city and private employees in other newly refurbished buildings.

Outside the historic communities that dot Western Maryland's rolling landscape, the state is aggressively buying up development rights and land to protect agriculture and natural resources. More than 5,000 acres have been added to the rolls of protected land in Washington and Frederick counties through Rural Legacy and Green Print, two programs created under Smart Growth. Besides farms and forests, these programs safeguard vital waterways, scenic views and Civil War sites such as Antietam, which today is buffered by more than 3,300 acres of protected open space.

Clearly, we have come a long way in five years, with similar trends taking hold in every corner of the state. But as we contemplate the future of Smart Growth in Maryland, we must continue to raise our expectations, while being patient about results.

Development patterns are a long-term phenomenon shaped by the complex interplay of public policy and private enterprise.

We now have a decision-making framework that is fiscally responsible and realistic about market forces. Going forward, we need to build on it. The health of our economy, our environment and every Maryland community is at stake.

Parris Glendening is governor of Maryland.

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