July 1, 2001 - From the July, 2001 issue

Maryland Prioritizes Smart Growth; Creates Cabinet-level Position To Combat Sprawl

On May 29th, Governor Glendening announced that sprawl was no longer welcome in Maryland. To curb that rampant growth, he proceeded to launch an unparalleled campaign aimed at developing a smarter growth paradigm. Included in that announcement was the creation of a new cabinet-level position--a Secretary of Smart Growth. On July 1st Harriet Tregoning, former Sec. of Planning, assumed that position. TPR caught up with Harriet, who clarifies her mission and Maryland's Smart Growth agenda, and provides us with lessons learned in hopes of aiding California in its attempts to plan smarter.

Secretary Tregoning, July will be your first month as Maryland's Secretary of Smart Growth. Give our readers a sense of what the Governor had in mind in creating the position.

As envisioned the Secretary of Smart Growth position will provide a single point of contact for Maryland's Smart Growth effort. It will help focus the efforts of our state agencies toward the comprehensive implementation of a full-scale Smart Growth agenda statewide.

On the same day your appointment was announced, Gov. Glendening announced an aggressive agenda to combat sprawl, offering the support of the state and your new Office to local governments, businesses and community groups in hopes of bringing Smart Growth patterns into the mainstream of development. What's the essence of this agenda? And what tools do you have to implement it?

The Governor's announcement was meant to acknowledge the progress that Maryland has made in establishing a broad Smart Growth agenda as well as urge continued cooperation and implementation. In Maryland, and elsewhere, doing Smart Growth projects is like swimming against the development tide-it's difficult and time-consuming because it is so different than what is typically being built. And in order to change that--make Smart Growth the path of least resistance, not most resistance--we must engage developers, local governments and community groups in helping get these projects up and out of the ground.

Let's break it down a little. What are the politics that support this kind of Gubernatorial action and intervention? What's driving this agenda?

The factors that gave rise to a Smart Growth agenda in Maryland are the same issues that other states and communities face. They are: 1) Increasing traffic congestion, 2) A noticeable loss of farmland and open space, and 3) The fiscal impacts of paying for sprawl.

Washington and Baltimore--Maryland's two major metropolitan areas-each rank in the top 20 for congestion nationally. And as each continues to grow and add population, the roads continue to get more congested.

The second factor is loss of open space. While that is an enormous issue in Maryland, we're fortunate in this regard because for more than 20 years we have had an ongoing effort to protect the Chesapeake Bay. That's really where Smart Growth started in Maryland. In trying to protect our most unique natural and cultural resource, we found that everything pointed to how our land use was degrading the Bay.

The last factor is a common sense, bottom-line issue--the notion that we would draw investment and population out of an existing community and build new infrastructure in ring after ring of sprawling development makes no sense to the citizenry of our state. So any strategy that supports reinvestment in existing neighborhoods is something that Marylanders find very sensible.

State intervention in local land use decisions is another part of this agenda. Flesh out that mechanism and talk about its implications.

The state has actually had the legal authority to intervene in any land use or development decision for more than 20 years. So, as long as we get in early and follow the local administrative procedure, we can pursue those actions to their logical conclusion, including ultimately challenging a decision in court.

What will be different about how we're going to approach this power now is that we will no longer simply send comments to Planning Directors. Instead, we will be visible, vocal and targeted in our efforts to support local Smart Growth projects throughout the state. So wherever there is a significant Smart Growth project we plan to be there, to stand up and voice our support.

And what screen are you using to choose among the thousands of projects that may be going on in the state?

We're developing a Smart Growth checklist that will both help us identify projects that meet a Smart Growth threshold as well as identify ways that we can improve projects that may not fit within that definition.

The key to this checklist's effectiveness will be its ability to evaluate projects based not merely on the tangible elements of their plans, but the context of a particular community.

So what might work in Appalachian Western Maryland may not pass a Smart Growth threshold in downtown Baltimore. And what might be a great project on the rural Eastern Shore, wouldn't be a Smart Growth project in urbanized Montgomery County.

Well, it's a good time for us to ask you to elaborate on your interpretation of Smart Growth. What's the essence of the things you're looking for?

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We've identified and encouraged a new set of expectations for growth throughout Maryland by adding specific characteristics to our definition of Smart Growth. And because of those tangible elements-preservation of open space, concentrated development (around say, transit or a town center), a mix of housing types, infill in existing communities, multiple transportation alternatives, etc.-people in Maryland are now able to recognize the constituent elements of a Smart Growth project when they see it. They are no longer fooled by those who might want to simply use the label "Smart Growth" to buy some good will for a conventional development project.

Let me just interrupt by saying 25 years ago the model of new towns in your region was Columbia and Reston. How would these plans fare in the 21st Century under your new Smart Growth criteria?

It depends whether you want to examine them as conceived or executed. Oddly enough, Reston is now a more complete town than it has ever been. There's even been talk of adding transit. But while Reston has a wonderful town center with office and retail, it is only accessible by automobile and it wasn't built initially with much housing. Columbia on the other hand has many of the attributes of a Smart Growth community-walkability, village centers, a mix of uses and citizens with a mix of incomes, etc.-but it also is a pretty automobile-dependent place.

However, the major shortcoming of both of those places was ultimately location. They are both examples of classic leap-frog development. But compared to what has become the current paradigm of conventional suburban development, another Columbia-type of project might look pretty good, if developed on the edge of an existing community.

We have in California a newly appointed Speaker's Commission on Regions on the notion that city boundaries are becoming less relevant to land use, transportation and environmental considerations. How are boundaries and cities affecting your work? Is that why the state needs to step in here, are localities less significant?

Localities are enormously important to Smart Growth; local governments have the power to make it possible or impossible for Smart Growth to work. However, it's also true that sprawl cannot be solved within the boundary of a single jurisdiction. And despite the occasional jurisdictional conflict, our 157 municipalities realize this. And again, part of what has helped us educate them on the importance of collaboration is the Chesapeake Bay. The fact that we needed to collaborate across not merely municipal lines but across state boundaries to address issues of development and water quality around the Chesapeake has really helped our populace understand the negatives to squabbling over jurisdictional lines drawn to delineate cities and counties.

Let me take off on a tangent in reference to collaboration. Talk about the national challenge of building new schools and integrating them into the land use patterns that are "Smart" in concept. How are you handling that in Maryland?

One of the most dramatic examples of how Smart Growth is working in our state is the changing framework for school finance. In the beginning of the ‘90s we, like every other state, allocated the majority of our school construction dollars to new schools on the fringe-more than 60-percent of our state's school construction budget went to new schools in new neighborhoods. Today (with a nearly 5-fold increase in school construction funds) more than 80-percent of our school construction budget goes to existing schools in existing neighborhoods. That's an enormous shift and a direct result of our Smart Growth efforts.

And given your EPA experience, are these schools smart, healthy and environmentally efficient?

We have special incentives that encourage green building, joint-use facilities and schools as centers of community. But, what we haven't been able to do is link our land use and development patterns to physical activity. Routine physical activity is going the way of the dinosaur. And it is causing serious health risks among our school age and adult populations.

To emphasize this point, when I give presentations, I sometimes ask people how many of them walked or rode a bicycle to school, almost every hand in the room goes up. I then ask them how many of their children walk or ride a bike to school, almost every hand goes down. It's dramatic how different that simple transportation example is. That's something we're starting to investigate in hopes of changing the built environment to encourage more physical activity and more walking.

How will you judge success and progress in the future?

We will judge the success and progress of our efforts in a number of ways most notably the tangible change in development patterns, the amount and quality of the projects being developed and the cultural shift within our agencies. We are a creature of state government and for Smart Growth to be a long-term success we have to alter how we do business. Another component will be the public's attitudes about quality of life. Eighty-nine percent of Marylanders currently judge quality of life as high or very high, so if our Smart Growth agenda is successful that number should remain constant or even grow as we intensify development opportunities in our existing communities.

Transportation would be the next area of importance. We're making a massive shift away from merely funding roads to funding a more multi-modal approach to transportation. Long before people can make a choice to alter their transportation patterns, they need options.

And lastly, our success will be based on how Maryland's program is influencing other programs around the nation. We spend a lot of time telling people what we're doing in Maryland and why it's important. We would like to see other states look to us and say, "We need to implement similar programs so that we can improve our air quality, congestion and quality of life as well."

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