Political Realities and Economic Imperatives of Smart Growth

Maryland has been heralded as a national leader in managing the growth of its urbanized areas (Burchell, Listokin, and Galley 2000; Cohen 2002; Downs 2001). In 1997, then Governor Parris Glendening developed a state program to combat urban sprawl. The Smart Growth Areas Act of 1997 sought to encourage the investment and revitalization of cites and established suburbs. This legislation provided state funding for transportation, housing, economic development, and environmental projects to “priority funding areas” (PFAs). In Baltimore County, the PFAs were strictly located in only the first-tier suburbs. These were areas that already had existing development, and they covered all of the first-tier suburbs of Baltimore. To enforce the smart growth policies, the legislation allowed the governor to deny state funding for projects that demonstrated the potential to exacerbate sprawl (Cohen 2002).

Despite the national recognition that Maryland received, various scholars have noted that Maryland's smart growth policies are severely limited in what they can realistically do. Cohen (2002) points out two critical limitations in Maryland's smart growth program: (1) it preserves local autonomy; and (2) it favors incentives over regulations. Similarly, Knaap (2001) argues that smart growth will continue to be largely ineffective as long as local governments maintain exclusive zoning and planning powers. Indeed, smart growth policies are only as strong as the willingness of Maryland's counties and municipalities to support them. For example, if a jurisdiction does not want to embrace smart growth's plan for mixed-use, highdensity communities, then it can simply prohibit that type of development through its own zoning laws (Gainsborough 2001). In effect, this diminishes the state's role in smart growth. Given the political reality of popular support for control over local zoning, it is unlikely that county governments will relinquish these coveted powers any time soon.

Furthermore, smart growth policies in Maryland do not regulate land use; they only provide incentives by making funds available for projects. According to Porter (1999), without the state explicitly regulating the use of land, smart growth policies are too weak to alter the pattern of development. If the state withholds funding to a local government for a project that it deems as a stimulus for sprawl, then little can be done to stop the local government from pursuing alternative sources of revenue to fund the project. Therefore, the economic imperative is that financial incentives alone are not strong enough to slow urban sprawl. Because of these two limitations, Maryland's first-tier suburbs have not benefited as much from smart growth policies at the state level as they have at the local level. As a result, leapfrog growth has occurred between counties. In short, Maryland's version of smart growth can only effectively confront suburban decline if substantial changes are made to overcome these limitations.

Maryland's smart growth initiatives have also not been immune to politics. While former Governor Glendening voiced significant support and provided substantial funding for smart growth initiatives from 1995 to 2003, his Republican predecessor did not. Under the Republican Governor Robert Ehrlich administration from 2003 to 2007, support and funding for smart growth dramatically waned. In 2003, Ehrlich authorized the Governor's Office of Smart Growth to be dismantled. Plus, in the wake of a recession and a reallocation of the state's resources based on the governor's priorities, Maryland's Departments of Housing and Community Development and Planning suffered from large budget cuts during the early 2000s (Wheeler 2005). By 2007, the state's newly elected Democratic Governor Martin O'Malley reinstituted the Governor's Office of Smart Growth and provided additional funding for such programs with the support of a Democrat-controlled state house (Green 2007).

This highlights the political fights and philosophical divides between Maryland Republicans and Democrats. It also demonstrates that support for smart growth, in part, is a function of state's economic climate and the political will of the state's leaders to use the program as a tool for suburban revitalization. Without increases in state funding, explicitly for first-tier suburbs, and a strong commitment from the state's leaders, the impact of smart growth on first-tier suburban revitalization is tenuous at best. As a result of the lack of land use regulation and a regional zoning authority, the political reality is that Maryland's smart growth initiative remains a futile tool for revitalizing first-tier suburbs. To date, the state has been unable to prevent the decline of first-tier suburbs because it has not provided zoning powers necessary to seriously alter the patterns of urban development, and political leaders throughout the state have not maintained a continuous commitment to these programs.

 
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