WASHINGTON – Baltimore and Washington are among the worst cities in the nation for suburban sprawl and are on pace to consume 40,000 acres of Maryland farmland for housing by the year 2006, according to a report released Wednesday.
The Sierra Club report said Washington was the third-highest “sprawl-threatened” city in the nation, behind Atlanta and St. Louis. Baltimore was 12th on the list.
The environmental group said the effects of sprawl in the Baltimore-Washington region are already being felt. Washington- area residents face the second-worst commute in the country, wasting 71 hours a year in traffic jams, and water quality of the Chesapeake Bay continues to diminish with increased air pollution and runoff from farms and city streets.
And the report said more building permits have been issued in the Baltimore/Washington region than anywhere else in the country.
“We can’t run away from troubled communities, we have to invest in them,” said Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club. “Inner cities paid to subsidize the flight from the inner cities, and now the inner suburbs are paying to subsidize the flight from the inner suburbs.”
Pope said the study points up the need for more legislation like Maryland’s 1997 “Smart Growth” initiative, which is aimed at redirecting new construction into already developed areas.
Gov. Parris Glendening’s special assistant for Smart Growth said Wednesday that Maryland has had at least 50 years of sprawl patterns and the problem “is not going to stop on a dime and disappear.
“We have to have years of a changed land-use development if we’re going to reverse what we have already done,” said John Frece, the Smart Growth official. “The Maryland program puts us in a better position to be able to change the ranking for Baltimore and Washington.”
Under the Smart Growth initiative, the state has set aside $38 million this year to buy and preserve 16,000 acres of open space. Another $40 million has been made available in low- interest mortgages for people who buy homes in older neighborhoods.
The state can also deny funding for infrastructure improvements in areas that are not targeted for Smart Growth development.
But state builders, while they agreed with the goals of the Smart Growth initiative, said it has yet to live up to its billing.
“It’s a concept that should work but it’s being perverted for political purposes,” said John E. Kortecamp, executive vice president of the Homebuilders Association of Maryland.
Kortecamp said he would like to work with Smart Growth, but he does not agree with some of the program’s decisions.
“Some of the best `smart’ projects … have been totally rejected by the governor as somehow not complying with Smart Growth,” Kortecamp said.
Dick Pettit, president of the Suburban Maryland Building Industry Association, said Smart Growth legislation “is not a bad thing, but has yet to prove to be an effective thing.”
But Larry Bohlen, co-chair of the Challenge to Sprawl Campaign, said the money that is now spent to build communities outside the Beltway could be put to better use revitalizing older communities inside the Beltway.
“When development is allowed to rule the roost, a sense of community diminishes,” Bohlen said.
The Sierra Club’s sprawl rankings were based on trends in population and land-area growth, traffic congestion and open- space loss. Researchers also took loss of important environmental habitat and historical sites into account when compiling the report.