Smart Growth in Maryland

Facing a New Reality
Gerrit-Jan Knaap and Dru Schmidt-Perkins, July 1, 2006

In the nearly 35 years since Bosselman and Callies (1972) published The Quiet Revolution in Land Use Control, land use policies in states across the nation have continued to change and evolve. The state of Maryland offers a good example. The history of land use policy in Maryland records a variety of conservation, development, and growth management acts, but in 1997 the state burst into the national spotlight with its innovative Smart Growth and Neighborhood Conservation package of land use reforms.

Today, some 10 years later, a new initiative is aiming to take the reform process in Maryland even further. Named Reality Check Plus: Imagine Maryland, this effort is supported in part by the Lincoln Institute, along with other nonprofit organizations, foundations, corporations, and individuals. It remains to be seen how far this effort will go and in what ways it may produce significant policy change, but regardless of the outcome it represents an interesting test of whether a privately led reform initiative can foster land use change at state and local levels.

A Rich Planning History

Maryland has a longstanding reputation as a national leader in land use policy and planning. The historical roots of Maryland’s smart growth program date to 1933, when Maryland established the nation’s first state planning commission. Recent planning history begins with the formation of the Chesapeake Bay Commission in 1980. Although the commission has no explicit land use authority in the signatory states (Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia), its recommendations have been instrumental in shaping land use policy in Maryland. The state’s Critical Area Act of 1984, for example, required local governments to adopt special development regulations within a 1,000-foot buffer of the Bay shoreline, and the Economic Growth, Resource Protection, and Planning Act of 1992 required local governments to address six visions originally outlined in a report prepared for the Chesapeake Executive Council (DeGrove 2005, 254–256).

Although the 1992 Planning Act provided a framework for local comprehensive plans, it failed to stem the tide of urban sprawl, according to the Growth Commission, established by the act as a new state advisory body. Following an extensive listening campaign, many meetings, and frequent forums, Governor Parris Glendening (1995–2003) proposed and the 1997 legislature passed the initiatives that have led to Maryland’s recognition as a leader in the promotion of smart growth. The original 1997 package of smart growth legislation included five separate measures; the first two captured the primary focus of the program (see Figure 1), and three others supported the overall concept.

  • The Priority Funding Areas (PFAs) Act: This act launched a program in which state subsidies for new roads, water, and other infrastructure are available only for projects that are either within municipalities, inside the beltways around Baltimore and Washington, or in other areas designated by counties that meet certain criteria set by the state. This landmark legislation marked the first time the state restricted its expenditures on infrastructure or other growth-related expenses to specific geographic areas of the state.
  • The Rural Legacy Act: Under this program the state provides funds for local governments and/or land trusts to purchase development rights on properties (and, in rare instances, purchase the property itself) in rural areas threatened by development, in order to preserve agriculture, forest, and natural resource lands in contiguous blocks, corridors, or greenways. This program recognized that efforts to concentrate new development within existing communities would not be completely successful and that the best remaining farms and natural areas of the state should be identified and protected.
  • Brownfield Voluntary Cleanup and Redevelopment Act: This act launched a program that provides financial incentives, technical assistance, and liability protection to eligible participants in the cleanup and redevelopment of underutilized or abandoned industrial properties that are, or are perceived to be, contaminated.
  • Live Near Your Work: This program promoted linkages between employers and nearby communities by offering incentives to enable employees to buy homes in proximity to their workplace. This small but popular program subsequently lost state funding due to budget constraints faced by the administration that followed Glendening.
  • Job Creation Tax Credit Act: This act launched a program designed to boost employment within the newly established PFAs by providing state income tax credits to employers who created 25 or more new, full-time jobs in those areas.

Incentive-based Programs

Maryland’s smart growth programs are interesting in a number of ways, but the most distinctive feature is their reliance on spatially specific incentives instead of land use regulations (Cohen 2002). For example:

  • Local governments can grow wherever they want, but state funds for accommodating development are available only within PFAs.
  • Property owners need not clean up and redevelop their properties, but grants are available for doing so.
  • Residents can live anywhere, but grants may be available if they purchase homes near their work.
  • Farm and forest lands can be developed, but development rights can also be sold and extinguished or, in some counties, transferred to more desirable locations.
  • Business can expand anywhere, but tax credits are available for expansion only in certain locations.

This reliance on incentives is what enabled these programs to pass the Maryland legislature, and what makes them so attractive to other states. After nearly 10 years, Maryland remains a national model for state efforts to promote smart growth, although many within the state believe the program has not gone far enough. According to John W. Frece, a former aide to Glendening, the smart growth program was “unquestionably a move in the right direction,” but it also represented only as much change as was politically possible at the time (Frece 2005). He concludes that the Maryland program might have been more effective if it had set specific goals and benchmarks when it was created, and that it failed to conduct any statewide visioning or other exercises to determine what the public thought their region or state should look like in the future. He also notes that the basic planning blocks of smart growth, the priority funding areas, proved to be too weak and porous to slow sprawl, much less stop it.

Because Maryland’s smart growth policies relied extensively on state incentives, their efficacy waned when those incentives were not maintained after Glendening left office. In some cases the policies were simply insufficient to counteract the economic factors that drive sprawl development. Moreover, if a development project was approved by the local government but did not need or rely on financial incentives from the state, the smart growth initiative had no effect on it. Finally, the smart growth program skirted the politically sensitive issue of whether the state should have more authority over local land use decisions. If local decisions were contrary to the state’s smart growth policies, the state had little recourse (Frece 2005).

Several recent studies support these assertions.

  • A pair of studies by 1000 Friends of Maryland that focused on the Baltimore area (1999) and the Eastern Shore (2001) found great variation in county land use policies. Whereas some counties had strong policies designed to protect natural resources, encourage infill, and promote mixed land uses, others did little to support any of these goals.
  • An examination of land conversion to urban uses from 1992 to 2002 found that urban development after 1997 was more likely inside PFAs than outside them, but only in those counties that had strong urban containment programs before 1997 (Shen and Zhang forthcoming).
  • In an examination of investments in wastewater infrastructure, Howland and Sohn (forthcoming) found that a large share of wastewater investments—even investments funded by the state—continued to occur outside of PFAs after 1997.
  • Research on brownfield redevelopment in Maryland by Howland (2000; 2003) found that those sites take no longer to sell than greenfield properties, as long as their asking prices are appropriately discounted. Further she found that the most significant impediments to brownfield redevelopment are inadequate infrastructure, incompatible surrounding land uses, and poor truck accessibility.
  • In an analysis of Maryland’s Job Creation Tax Credit Program, Sohn and Knaap (2005) found that the effects of the tax credits on the location of job growth are small and sector specific, and perhaps cause more job redistribution than actual job growth.
  • In a series of studies on local land use policies in Maryland, the National Center (2003; 2006) found that zoning policies and adequate public facilities ordinances can serve as impediments to development in PFAs and can deflect growth to rural areas and neighboring states.
  • A comprehensive analysis of the Rural Legacy Program by the Maryland Department of Planning (Tassone et al. 2004) found that the efficacy of the program depends critically on support from local zoning ordinances. In counties where local zoning is not supportive, land fragmentation in rural legacy areas is high, residential development remains common, and conservation easements become prohibitively expensive.

These reports suggest that although Maryland has adopted some of the most innovative land use policies in the country, there is limited evidence that these policies have significantly altered urban development trends. The reasons are complex, but the available research suggests that state incentives are either too small or are poorly suited to the situation to have major impacts on land development trends, especially without supportive regulatory policies at the local level.

Reality Check Plus: Imagine Maryland

To rekindle interest in urban development trends and land use policy in Maryland, and to advance progress in land use reform, a new initiative was launched in 2005. Reality Check Plus: Imagine Maryland is a broad-based, long-term effort led by the Baltimore District Council of the Urban Land Institute (ULI), the National Center for Smart Growth Research and Education at the University of Maryland, and 1000 Friends of Maryland. It is also supported by more than 130 organizations throughout the state.

The first component of the effort involved four public participatory visioning exercises based on similar exercises in Washington, DC, and Fredericksburg, Virginia, led by ULI and the National Center for Smart Growth. In these exercises citizens representing civic, government, and business interests, including elected officials, were literally brought to the table to confront the issues of urban growth and express a desired vision for their region’s future. The Maryland exercises were held in May and June in four regions: the Eastern Shore, Southern Maryland, Western Maryland, and the Baltimore-Washington Corridor. Participants expressed their vision for where future growth should go by placing plastic Lego® blocks representing projected job and housing growth through 2030 on large, table-top regional maps.

The final results of the four Maryland exercises will not be fully integrated and analyzed until September, but preliminary results presented at each event reveal similar but distinct results (see Figure 2). The consensus visioning principles expressed public desires to (1) protect open spaces and natural resources; (2) utilize existing infrastructure; (3) concentrate growth near transit stations in existing urban areas; and (4) balance the location of jobs and households. And at all four events, the placement of Legos was consistent with these principles. Specifically, when compared with current development patterns, participants placed larger proportions of growth inside PFAs and near transit stations and highway corridors, and placed more jobs in job-poor areas.

Notable support was given in all regions for new and expanded transit service and for more regional cooperation or even regional authorities to plan for future growth. There were also some important regional differences: participants from the Eastern Shore focused on protecting the region’s small town and agrarian way of life; in Western Maryland there was concern about uneven economic growth; the primary concern in Central Maryland was traffic congestion; and in Southern Maryland there was apprehension about the impacts of growth in military jobs.

Although these exercises represent one of the largest forums on growth ever conducted in a single state, it is important not to overstate what these events can produce. A pile of Legos placed on a table for a few hours cannot be confused with a thorough analysis of alternative development patterns, a careful consideration of consequences, and a true statewide consensus about the results. These events, however, do represent an important beginning to what must be a continuing dialogue on growth in the state.

In September, during the state’s quadrennial election cycle, a synthesis of the four regional events will be presented at a statewide forum. Candidates for state and local office, including candidates for governor, will be invited to attend and pledge their support for implementing the results. In the meantime, each of the three lead organizations is developing work plans for the implementation phase. The Baltimore District Council of ULI will offer a series of education and outreach programs designed to disseminate the results of the four events throughout each region, especially to elected officials. 1000 Friends of Maryland will sponsor a series of candidate forums and regional caucuses to encourage the implementation of the results, especially through state and local policy reform. The National Center, with support from the Lincoln Institute, will conduct more extensive analyses of alternative statewide development scenarios and existing land use policies in Maryland and other states.

For Maryland, these four regional exercises, and whatever changes in land use policies may follow, represent just the latest chapter in the state’s closely watched history of land use planning and policy. For other states, these exercises represent a rare natural experiment. Can a privately led visioning exercise precipitate significant change in the substance of state and/or local land use policy, local development decisions, and development trends? Stay tuned.

The Visioning Experience

At each Reality Check Plus event, up to 10 participants at each table were asked to think about how their region should accommodate the growth projected over the next 25 years. A six-foot by eight-foot map of the region was shaded in various colors to represent the existing population and employment density. The maps also depicted major highways; subway and commuter rail lines and stations; parkland or other protected conservation areas; airports, military bases, and other government installations; and rivers, floodplains, and other bodies of water.

To encourage participants to think regionally rather than locally, all jurisdictional boundaries were intentionally omitted, although place names of cities and towns helped with orientation. Each table was staffed by a scribe/computer operator and a trained facilitator to lead the three-hour exercise. Before considering where to accommodate growth, participants were asked to reach consensus on a set of principles to guide their decisions about where to place the new development, such as protecting open space, making use of existing infrastructure, and maintaining jobs-housing balance.

The exercise used Lego® blocks of four different colors: white blocks represented the top 80 percent of new housing units in the region based on price, or essentially market-rate housing; yellow blocks represented the bottom 20 percent of housing based on price, essentially a stand-in for nonsubsidized affordable housing; black blocks represented lower density housing development that could be exchanged for higher density white blocks at a ratio of 4:1; and blue blocks represented jobs.

The maps were overlaid with a checkered grid and scaled so a single block fit on each grid. Participants who wanted to add more than one housing or employment block to a single grid simply stacked the blocks. Those who proposed a mixed-use development pattern could stack various types of blocks together. Once all the Legos were placed on the map, the result yields a three-dimensional representation of where future growth in the region is or is not desired.

After all the Legos were placed, the participants were asked to assess their work. Have they allocated jobs and households across the region in a manner consistent with their vision for what the future should hold? Does the quantity of growth seem appropriate for a 25–30 year timeframe, or would they prefer more or less growth? Finally, if they are comfortable with the consensus vision, what policies or land development tools do they favor for assuring that the preferred vision is the one that is actually realized? What new infrastructure will be necessary to accommodate the projected level of growth? What might be the environmental impacts and tax implications? The participants’ considered responses to these questions are perhaps the most important products of the exercise.

During the lunch break a team of students from the University of Maryland counted the numbers of Legos at each table, entered the information into a computer, and then converted the results into two– and three-dimensional maps for each table. The data were also analyzed and inserted into a formatted PowerPoint presentation. The slides identified results for each table in a quantitative analysis of urban development indicators, such as percentages of jobs and households within one-quarter mile of a transit station; inside metropolitan beltways; inside existing urban areas; and in existing greenfields and farmland. Other indicators measured location of affordable housing and the degree to which it is integrated with market-rate housing; and the extent of jobs-housing balance.

After lunch the participants gathered in a large auditorium to hear a presentation of the results, which included a summary of the consensus principles, selected results from various tables, and a synthesis of the results from all the tables. Subsequent events included a town hall-type panel discussion focused on how to implement the pattern of development envisioned by the participants at each regional event.

Gerrit-Jan Knaap, an economist and professor of urban studies and planning, is executive director of the National Center for Smart Growth Research and Education at the University of Maryland. He is one of three co-chairs of the Reality Check Plus visioning exercise.

Dru Schmidt-Perkins is executive director of 1000 Friends of Maryland, a statewide citizens’ coalition that supports protection of natural resources, revitalization of existing communities, preservation of historic resources, efficient and effective transportation choices, and development that takes into account the public’s interest. She is also one of three co-chairs of the Reality Check Plus project.


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———. 2006. Adequate public facilities ordinances in Maryland: Inappropriate use, inconsistent standards, unintended consequences.

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———. 2001. Smart growth: How is your county doing—Eastern Shore.

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