Who’s Got More Smart Growth – MD or VA?

Smart growth in Bethesda, not the norm in Maryland.
Smart growth in Bethesda, not the norm in Maryland.

by James A. Bacon

State-level incentives to encourage smart growth proved to be of limited effectiveness in Maryland because they did not dissuade local governments from pursuing local priorities, according to a new study of the Washington metropolitan area scheduled to be published in Urban Studies.

The study by Amal K. Ali, a geography professor at Salisbury University, compared development patterns in Washington’s Maryland suburbs, which provides state-level incentives for localities to pursue smart growth, with development patterns in the region’s Virginia suburbs, where no such state-level inducements exist.

States the article abstract: “While statewide incentive programmes/policies help Maryland’s counties to preserve their farmlands, they seem insufficient to change sprawling development patterns. County applications of smart growth policies are mainly driven by local needs and priorities.”

I was unable to obtain a free copy of the study (you can download one for $25), but Eric Jaffe summarized the findings for the Atlantic Cities blog.

Maryland tries to steer development into “priority funding areas” where infrastructure to handle increased density already exists. While some counties pursued smart growth development — Montgomery County is the leading example — about 21% of new residential parcels were built outside priority funding areas between 1997 and 2007. The incentives did work to preserve farmland but in other measures, such as density, “the Maryland counties didn’t perform so well,” Jaffe writes.

The recently approved PlanMaryland combines carrots and sticks, adding mandates such as requiring localities to link growth with water resources, limiting the ability to expand into remote areas. But the plan is generating pushback as localities complain about excessive state control.

Bacon’s bottom line: Sprawl is an incredibly complex phenomenon, influenced not only by state policies but federal policies, transportation policies and market forces. But the most important influences — politics, zoning codes, infrastructure investments, permitting processes and regulations (like minimum parking requirements) — are local.

If local governments don’t get on board, smart growth won’t happen. Montgomery County, Md., has smart growth because there is strong local support for it. Charles County, Md., by contrast, has sprawl that’s even worse than anything I’ve seen in Virginia.

Maryland has pursued smart growth more aggressively than almost any other state but doesn’t have much to show for it. It appears that the state is doubling down on its top-down approach with PlanMaryland. It will be interesting to see if more mandates and tougher regulations make a difference or whether they have perverse and unintended consequences that undermine the smart-growth goal. Someone needs to articulate a conservative, market-based approach to smart growth. Gee, that would be me. I’ll get on it.

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8 responses to “Who’s Got More Smart Growth – MD or VA?”

  1. larryg Avatar

    the obvious question in response to this: ” Maryland tries to steer development into “priority funding areas” where infrastructure to handle increased density already exists. ”

    who pays to build this infrastructure? water, sewer, transit, etc?

    I’m pretty skeptical that the private sector is going to do this.

    It’s usually up to the locality to borrow money and build the infrastructure then collect fees to pay off the debt.

    I don’t see developers doing much of this – and when they do – there are invariably problems with compliance and the fees they charge.

    you can see this in private gated stand-alone communities that can be found throughout parts of Virginia. The water/sewer is always a big deal.

    1. DJRippert Avatar

      Here’s what will happen –

      1. Maryland will refuse to build roads, water and sewer in any areas other than the priority areas.

      2. Private enterprise will not build the roads, water and sewer in the non-priority areas. Localities might build infrastructure in these areas but they won’t build much.

      3. Refusing to build infrastructure effectively reduces the amount of land available for development. When supply grows more slowly than demand prices go up. residential housing prices will rise in Maryland.

      4. Politicians will decry the lack of affordable housing guaranteed by the refusal to build more infrastructure. Advocates for “the middle class” and “the poor” will cry great buckets of tears over the unaffordability of housing. Rent controls will be imposed. Developers will be required to build low cost housing in order to get any construction permits. Taxes will be raised in order to pay for more and more subsidized housing.

      In the end, housing in Maryland will be high density, high regulation and highly taxed.

      You can get smart growth, you just can’t get it from the free market.

      1. larryg Avatar

        DJ is pretty much dead on IMHO.

        I’d point this out.

        localities have to plan for water and sewer.

        Instead of restricting it’s use to only 8 or high du – they will sell it to developers of 1/4 acre subdivisions.

        When you do this, you are NOT prioritizing “Smart Growth” which is 8du and up.

        if you limit water and sewer to only 8du and up, you will automatically get some affordable housing – and if you don’t then you add that to the requirements for rezones. 8du plus affordable housing.

        Now the amazing thing about Dillon in Va is that it had the opportunity to require localities to not only designate UDAs but to restrict water/sewer to only designated UDAs and they did not.

        In fact, the only thing the UDA legislation required was for localities to designate areas where they ALLOWED 8du and up proposals

        they did not have to approve any at all and in fact, the law allows the developer to propose ANY development ANYWHERE and the BOS has to act on it.

        So Virginia does not force localities to maximize their water/sewer and prioritize it to 8du and up density and most localities CHOOSE to allocate water and sewer to SPRAWL subdivisions at 4du which is auto-dependent development and 1/2 of the minimum thresholds for cost-effective transit.

        So DJ blames this on Dillon .. and I say that Dillon actually does the reverse – they stay out of it and let the localities approve sprawl with their water/sewer instead of Smart Growth.

        Where DJ is 100% dead on is the idea that the private sector would build Smart Growth. They don’t. What the private sector wants is water/sewer for 1/4 acre subdivisions.

  2. DJRippert Avatar

    “Someone needs to articulate a conservative, market-based approach to smart growth. Gee, that would be me. I’ll get on it.”.

    Good luck. If the market didn’t want sprawl then there wouldn’t be sprawl.

    People say they want to live in walkable communities. My guess is that few have ever lived in walkable communities. I live in Mid-town Manhattan and in the loop in Chicago over the years. I didn’t have a car in either city (although I did keep one “back home” in Virginia).

    It was great. Except that it cost a fortune. I mean really – a bloody fortune.

    Walkability is great, if you can afford it. Otherwise, sprawl is the answer.

    Why did Baltimore lose 30% of its population? If people wanted “walkability” they should have stayed in Baltimore. But they didn’t. Why not?

    I’d love to read an honest to goodness free market plan for smart growth. I doubt such a plan is possible.

  3. larryg Avatar

    Maybe an interesting discussion might be how Dillon Rule affects Smart Growth, eh?

  4. larryg Avatar

    with respect to Dillon and Virginia:



    does a pretty good job of laying out Dillon and Centralized Control

    it’s worth reading.

    and it appears to me that what the states do (or not) with regard to Dillon and Centralized Planning can play a significant role in “Smart Growth”.

  5. […] Maryland’s Smart Growth Incentives Aren’t Working (Atlantic Cities, Bacon’s Rebellion) […]

  6. […] Who’s Got More Smart Growth – MD or VA? Bacon’s Rebellion – June 3, 2013 Sprawl is an incredibly complex phenomenon, influenced not only by state policies but federal policies, transportation policies and market forces. […]

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