By Amanda Costikyan Jones
WASHINGTON – A state official said Wednesday that the federal government can help states enact “Smart Growth” initiatives like Maryland’s, which are aimed at keeping sprawl from consuming all of the state’s undeveloped land.
“The rate at which we’re consuming land is unbelievable,” said Ronald Young, deputy director of the state Office of Planning. “We can’t afford to keep building” at current rates.
Young was speaking to staffers for the U.S. Senate Smart Growth Task Force, which is studying smart growth programs in the states and looking for ways for the federal government to get involved.
Maryland’s Smart Growth is a group of initiatives intended to confine new construction to areas that are already developed, checking the continued expansion of suburbs.
Most states have programs with similar goals, but Maryland is recognized as a leader, according to a staffer for the task force that hosted Young’s talk.
“Maryland is often touted as one of the best smart growth examples” in the nation, said Cameron Taylor of the Senate Smart Growth Task Force. “They did this with existing resources. That is a very good example of what can be done.”
Taylor said Young’s ideas about how the federal government can facilitate smart growth for states were especially valuable. She said those ideas will be passed along to the 25 senators who are members of the task force.
Young said the federal government can “create incentives for smart growth in a lot of ways, be it dollar programs, be it flexibility …. Federal and state policies have encouraged sprawl over the last 50 years, and we really need to reverse them.”
The federal government can play a role by discouraging post offices and federal facilities from relocating far from town centers, Young said. He also suggested tax changes that would make it easier for people to buy homes in cities or towns and to keep farms without subdividing them, as well as regulatory changes relating to land use and consumer loans.
Young acknowledged that the first decisions influenced by Smart Growth in Maryland — including the state’s initial refusals to finance bypasses around the towns of Brookeville and Manchester — have “caused a great deal of stir” in some quarters.
But Young said he does not believe the public is generally opposed to smart growth.
“People are against density, and they’re against sprawl. We’ve got a lot of educating to do” about the impossibility of avoiding both, he said.
And Young said the two bypasses, which he thinks are unrealistic based on cost alone, were denied for good reason.
“If you look at a huge majority of small towns that they’ve put a bypass around, it’s really done more damage to their downtowns than it’s done good,” by routing customers away from small businesses, he said.
Young suggested that the towns instead consider making internal changes, such as to their traffic patterns, perhaps with state help.
“Instead of playing a game and saying, ‘We’ve got your bypass on the books,’ let’s go into the town and try to solve the problem,” he said.
Young said Maryland and its localities must act quickly. He said that if current rates do not change, Maryland will consume as much land in the next 20 years as it has in the past 300.
“We can’t keep treating cities like throwaway beer cans,” he said.