Atlantic Cities

Why We Shouldn't Rely on Smart Growth Incentives to Fix Sprawl

Why We Shouldn't Rely on Smart Growth Incentives to Fix Sprawl
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Maryland has been out in front of the push toward smart growth for years. Beginning in the early 1990s, and continuing up through the recently approved PlanMaryland, the state has developed a series of thoughtful incentives designed to reduce sprawl and increase density.

The approach favors collaboration over regulation between state and local authorities: smart growth is encouraged by the incentives rather than coerced by new laws.

Good as that program's been, it might not be enough. A new study of the Washington, D.C., metro area, set for publication in Urban Studies, found that Maryland counties often spurn the state's smart growth incentives, instead pursuing their own preferred type of development. Despite the contentious nature of legal planning mandates, in many cases they would be more effective.

"Because they are incentives, then it's up to the local government to adopt them or not," says planner and report author Amal K. Ali of Salisbury University. "This is the tricky thing about the incentive approach."

To reach her conclusions, Ali evaluated the smart growth efforts implemented by counties in and around the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area from the 1970s up through today. The region makes a good point of comparison because Maryland established its smart growth program in the 1990s while Virginia has no similar statewide initiative.

Maryland encourages local governments to follow its smart growth program through a number of incentives. In general terms, the program guides development into "priority funding areas," where the infrastructure to handle increased density already exists, as a means of reducing sprawl and preserving farmland. In the late 1990s, for instance, the state offered tax credits to businesses and financial aid to home-buyers who located in these priority areas.

But Ali found that the results of these initiatives were decidedly mixed. While some Maryland counties pursued smart growth development, about 21 percent of new residential parcels were established outside priority funding areas between 1997 and 2007, according to the study. Maryland counties lost less farmland than Virginia counties did, but on other measures of sprawl, such as density, the Maryland counties didn't perform so well.

"If we are talking about sprawl in terms of farmland loss, then Maryland counties did better job," Ali says. "But if we look at other factors, then this conclusion is unclear."

A few Maryland counties show the range of outcomes. In Montgomery County, sprawl was largely mitigated, with less farmland loss and greater urban density than its Virginia counterpart, Fairfax County. In Frederick County, farmland was preserved but more than a quarter of residential growth occurred outside priority areas, as residents preferred low-density homes. And in remote Calvert County, there was massive farmland loss and exurban development, especially compared to Stafford County in Virginia.

Simply put, when it comes to development, local desires often render state smart growth incentives insufficient, Ali concluded in her paper.

Despite the mixed results, Ali believes that Maryland "is moving in the right direction." PlanMaryland creates a true comprehensive plan — one compiled with enormous local feedback — that's much stronger in character and concept than the state's earlier smart growth initiatives. Additionally, the state has implemented complementary mandates, such as one requiring localities to link growth with water resources, which limits their ability to expand into remote areas.

"I'm not saying the state programs are not useful — they are," she says. "What I'm saying is, you cannot have a program completely about incentives, because you can forget about any assurance that anything will be implemented."

What the state needs most, she believes, is continued public awareness. Although Maryland's smart growth program preserves local planning freedom, some communities still complain that the state is trying to control the little guys. (Governor Martin O'Malley has responded in the past by saying local authorities can keep making bad land use decisions, but the state isn't going to pay for it.) The more the state's intentions are explained, Ali says, the more effective its incentives become.

"The state can educate the people, so the people understand it's not that they try to control them, merely to improve the quality of life for the whole state," she says. "The whole conversation can change, really, if we succeed to reach the public."

Top image: IdeaStepConceptStock /Shutterstock.com

Eric Jaffe is a contributing writer to The Atlantic Cities and the author of A Curious Madness (2014) and The King's Best Highway (2010). He lives in New York. All posts »

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