Sunday, January 29, 2012

Achieving Smart Growth Includes Protecting Public Open Space that People Instinctively Love

Stake-holders in the future of smart growth  in Maryland are often at odds with each other. But a recently released compilation of interviews with planners, developers and advocates by the National Center for Smart Growth shows that they agree on one thing: the State's smart growth tools that attempt to channel growth into Priority Funding Areas (PFAs) are  too weak to overcome local opposition and local regulatory barriers. In essence, there is a huge disconnect between State policy and what happens on the ground at the local level. For this reason we are "barely moving the needle on most widely accepted measures of smart growth."

Cited as the greatest hindrances to development inside PFAs are storm water regulations, citizen opposition, and adequate public facility ordinances at the local level.  Citizen opposition was the top-ranked impediment to developing in PFAs cited by advocates and the second top-ranked impediment cited by developers.  What's behind this result?

Kaid Benfield provides an answer in a recent blog post, What Smart Growth Advocates Get Wrong About Density. "We should be advocating density that appeals to more people, that we and future generations can be proud of ... the kinds of places that people instinctively love." According to Benfield, "'smart growth' without green infrastructure, green buildings, parks and great public spaces ... isn't particularly worthy of the name in my opinion."

I wasn't interviewed for the smart growth study, but, had I been asked my opinion, I would have said that Baltimore County is ahead of the pack in trying to give citizens what they want inside its PFA, which, in essence, is the entire area of the County within the URDL. In helping to launch NeighborSpace in 2003, the County made sure that there was an organization in place to sustain, create and protect the the kinds of places Benfield references.  I invite you to take a look at a few of them, particularly Tollgate Wyndham Preserve and Greenbrier Memorial Garden. County Executive Kamenetz has advanced a bond bill in the State legislature that, if passed, would help us begin a park on land we own on Robin Hill Road, acquire new land for public open space elsewhere in the County, and complete our strategic conservation plan.  (I'll have more to say about the bill in coming weeks).

The study makes a number recommendations for realigning State and local policies, many of which turn on local governments weaving PFAs more thoughtfully into their comprehensive planning processes, drawing them more broadly to include non-residential and mixed use projects, and achieving greater flexibility in both defining PFAs and in reducing regulatory restrictions within them in return for reducing growth elsewhere.  To this I would add an admonition from County Councilman Tom Quirk, who said, in the 9/20/2011 edition of the Catonsville Times that "open space and density have to balance each other." To truly achieve smart growth, we must protect public open space and ensure that what we protect are the kinds of places that people will instinctively love.  

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