Planning in Maryland: A Forerunner in Smart Growth

Partly because it is our neighbor to the south, partly because it is often held up as a national model, Maryland is often viewed by planners, public officials, and advocates in Pennsylvania as an example of forward-thinking state policy on smart growth. In this blog post, we look at what Pennsylvania can learn from the successes—and even the shortcomings—of the Maryland model.

Former Maryland Gov Parris Glendening’s crusade for smart growth culminated with the Smart Growth and Neighborhood Conservation Act in 1997. The crown jewel of this legislation was the Smart Growth Priority Funding Areas Act, which was greeted with critical acclaim as a breakthrough in state led development strategy. So the question is, in a state that had previously demonstrated it was adamantly opposed to land use reform (not to mention growth in general), how did Parris do it?

Carrots, not sticks
Unlike Oregon’s Urban Growth Boundaries which limit sprawl with strict regulations on where one can build and where one can not, Priority Funding Areas (PFA’s), provide state funded incentives (loans, tax credits, etc.) to encourage growth within older developed areas with pre-existing infrastructure. The previous attempts at land use reform under Glendening’s predecessor had been shot down with strong opposition by the local (county and municipal) governments in response to their perceived diminished authority.

How Law becomes Policy
Recent analysis has demonstrated the difficulty translating this significant legislation into statewide practice. A 2009 University of Maryland study on PFA’s highlights this failure: “PFA’s are not required in elements in local comprehensive plans, and in some existing comprehensive plans, PFA’s are not even mentioned.” While the tools had been put in place by the state, it did not mean everyone instantly understood how to use them. Therefore, the state has recently implemented a required a smart growth heavy education program for all members of local planning commissions/boards.

A significant, but incomplete victory
Maryland’s Smart Growth is touted as one of the nation’s “gold standards” of regional planning initiatives. However it has so far remained inadequate in completing the goals envisioned by Glendening over ten years ago. As with most examples of innovative legislation, politics interfered. The passage of the acts required compromise, limiting the role of the state to solely an advisor as well as loosening the criteria determining eligible PFAs. Finally, much of the development in Maryland is privately funded and therefore goes on outside the boundaries unabated.

Lessons for the Valley

Help from Above: Maryland’s Smart Growth Initiative rises and falls with the office of the Governor. This is clearly evidenced by the relative successes under Glendening and current governor Martin O’Malley, and the stagnation under the state’s former governor Robert Ehrlich.

Incentive over regulation: Pennsylvania municipalities don’t like being told what to do any more than do those in Maryland. The incentive approach was innovative in the way that it proposed to motivate municipalities to comply with a comprehensive plan without infringing upon their traditional powers.

Maryland’s experience brings to light why one of the main tenets of RenewLV’s mission is an emphasis on community and policymaker education. Despite headway made by Glendening’s governor’s office, the success of the smart growth initiative in Maryland and elsewhere is contingent upon the understanding and cooperation of role players in the local governments and communities.

In the Lehigh Valley, you can become part of the success by becoming more educated on these issues locally. The best way to do this is by visiting RenewLV’s website and to sign up for our e-mail list at our Join Us page.

Posted on October 20, 2010, in Municipal Government, Public Infrastructure and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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