Smart Growth: The Maryland Example


This is Part Two of a two-part series.

Evidence that people just don’t like Smart Growth is revealed in findings from organizations set up to promote Smart Growth. In 2009, the Washington Post reported, “Scholars at the National Center for Smart Growth Research and Education found that over a decade, smart growth has not made a dent in Maryland's war on sprawl.”

Citing the “most comprehensive review to date” from the same Center, the Baltimore Sun in 2011 argued that Maryland had made “little progress with Smart Growth” despite adopting laws and policies hailed across the country as models for growth management.

One of the innovative policies was the establishment of Priority Funding Areas (PFAs) where development was to be directed and incentivized with money for cash-strapped jurisdictions. Yet the representative bodies closest to the people continued to permit development outside the PFAs.

Assessing the failure of incentives to concentrate development, the Center concluded: “As the Maryland experience suggests, without statutory requirements, tools that matter to the state are not always those that matter to local governments.”

The anti-democratic outlook among Smart Growthers was evident in a comment by Gerrit Knapp, the director of the National Center for Smart Growth Research and Education, who said, “What makes incentives so politically attractive is that governments and individuals can choose to ignore them if they wish. Unfortunately, in Maryland over the last decade, that's exactly what many have been doing.”

This “unfortunate” behavior by free people is consistent with the conclusion of Robert Bruegmann, author of Sprawl: A Compact History, who found that low density development was “the preferred settlement pattern everywhere in the world where there is a certain measure of affluence and where citizens have some choice in how they live.”

Deconstructing Density

Under the new PlanMaryland, Priority Funding Areas essentially become urban growth boundaries. People still can choose to live outside PFAs, but new housing can be built at no greater than one unit per 20 acres, making such dwellings unaffordable to all but the extremely rich. Ninety percent of new development must be inside the PFAs at a minimum density of 3.5 units per acre.

The impact of increased densities is hard to gauge when presented in this manner, but 3.5 units per acre converts to 2,240 units per square mile. Maryland averages 2.62 people per dwelling unit, so the minimum population density for almost all new development will be on a scale of 5,846 people per square mile, a density higher than Portland or San Francisco, and just shy of Copenhagen, Denmark.

Furthermore, reviewing previous drafts of PlanMaryland leads one to believe that this minimum density will be the exception to the rule of even higher densities. The earliest draft available for public comment, April 2011, was unapologetic about the need for significantly higher densities, saying this “threshold for new development – a relatively low density of 3.5 units per acre – is not accommodating growth in PFAs as needed to minimize continued impacts on our rural and resource lands and industries.”

A later draft, September 2011, established ranges for “medium density” (3.5 to 10 units per acre) and “high density” (10+ units per acre) and repeatedly showed a preference for the high density classification, which converts to a scale of at least 16,704 people per square mile.

For example, on page 18 is the complaint that incentive-based planning “hindered high-density urban development,” and page 35 says there would be dramatic per capita savings “if 25 percent of the low-density development projected to be built from 2000 to 2025 was shifted to high-density development.”

But a strange thing happened on the road to the final draft: high density was euphemized. The sixteen-page Executive Summary does not once mention density. “Low density” makes numerous appearances in the final draft in the context of wasteful land use patterns, and “high density” appears just once.

Instead, PlanMaryland relies on the phrase “compact development”. A comparison table, laughably labeled “Low Density versus Compact Development,” steers clear of medium or high density labels even though, when converted to population per square mile, the “compact” living arrangement would be more than seven times Maryland’s current density.

To discern the density thresholds that Maryland planners have in mind, consider, PlanMaryland claims that “Compact development leads people to drive 20 to 40 percent less, at minimal or reduced cost, while reaping fiscal and health benefits.”

This appears to be lifted from the influential 2007 Growing Cooler report, sponsored by the National Center for Smart Growth Research and Education, Smart Growth America, and other advocacy organizations. The authors call on “all housing growth” to be built at an average density of 13 units per acre (21,798 people per square mile), in order to increase the overall metropolitan density to 9 units per acre (15,091 people per square mile) by the year 2025. There’s not a lot of room for detached single family homes in this scenario.

PlanMaryland’s Best Practices section highlights White Flint in North Bethesda for redeveloping “an auto-dominated suburban strip into an environment where people walk to work, shops and transit.” This project puts 1,400 apartments on 32 acres, for a density of 44 units per acre.

Hyattsville’s Arts District is recognized because “this mixed-use community features row homes, condominiums, live-work units, shops and a new community center,” but there is no room for detached, single family homes among the 500 dwellings crowded onto 25 acres, or 20 units per acre. Also featured is Carroll Creek Park that has 300 residential units, all multi-family, mixed among commercial and office space along a linear 1.3-mile strip.

As a “Traditional Neighborhood Development,” Kentlands is closer to the norm, and features some single family housing among its mix of shops, apartments, and condos, but the 1,655 residential units on 352 acres is still 35 percent higher than the “minimum” densities mentioned in PlanMaryland, and thirteen times the state’s current density level.

These places are architecturally striking and aesthetically attractive, but they are unaffordable to most of the state’s population. Furthermore, the dearth of detached single family housing, the predominance of multi-family dwellings mixed with (not nearby) other uses, and dramatically higher densities are not at all what an overwhelming majority of people want in Maryland or anywhere else.

The emergence of Smart Growth in Maryland is indicative of the movement in general: For successful implementation, it would be necessary to replace incentives with mandates, and continue to rely on euphemistic language to avoid a candid discussion of density.

In October, I spoke -- along with Wendell Cox and a few others -- at a technical forum on PlanMaryland, addressing many areas of concern including density. Signed into law by Governor Martin O’Malley in December 2011, PlanMaryland weakens the authority of local governments, eviscerates property rights, and expresses hope for declining interest in the single family home.

Defenders will argue that most people support Smart Growth; after all, O’Malley and others like him were popularly elected. Yet these politicians never campaign on the specifics of Smart Growth, such as how many people per square mile they believe is necessary, or what kinds of restrictions they will impose on single family housing in the suburbs, or the impacts on affordability.

The September draft of PlanMaryland said, “PlanMaryland, we believe, is what the public says it wants and deserves in government.” Tellingly, this statement is missing from the final report. That’s because what planners want and what people prefer are starkly different.

Photo: New residential smart growth, from the state of Maryland's, "Smart, Green, and Growing" site.

Ed Braddy is the executive director of the American Dream Coalition, a non-profit organization promoting freedom, mobility and affordable homeownership. Mr. Braddy often speaks on growth management related issues and their impact on local communities or at

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