PERSONAL PERSPECTIVE:

Smart Growth? Sprawl?

by John V. Brain
     “Smart Growth”? “Sprawl”? What’s going on here? According to Sun columnist Tom Horton, Maryland Governor Parris Glendening’s “Smart Growth” legislation was gutted by the State legislature, so individual counties can now decide for themselves what development is smart for them--which is like announcing a statewide sprawl race for development dollars.
     What drives sprawl?
     First, let’s define our terms. “Sprawl” is a pejorative used only by those who are agin’ it, mostly environmentalists and government planners who see farmland gobbled up by housing estates, creating the need for new roads, schools, libraries, utilities, and all the “infrastructure” of development.
     Against this naughty word in their vocabulary they oppose “smart growth,” which means limiting State expenditures on new development to existing communities which already have these facilities in place. Let’s direct State revenues to preserving and restoring older, deteriorating communities, they argue, rather than leaving them to run down while building new communities on the ever-expanding fringes of suburbia.
     The trouble with “smart growth” is that it isn’t popular with those who have development money to invest--not, as they see it, in “sprawl,” but in elegant new communities where those able to afford spacious new homes can enjoy a gracious lifestyle and escape the problems of the city and its inner suburbs: crime, grime, crowding, and the prospect of ever-higher taxes and falling property values.
     So long as the affluent can afford to move up, up, and away, there will be money to be made building new upscale housing development, preferably secure “gated communities” as far from the squalor of the cities as possible, compatible with the need to commute to and from work. Developers also have money to spend on lobbyists and are generous with campaign contributions. The communities they develop tend to elect politicians who reflect the “I’ve got mine” conservatism of the suburban escapees and resent the meddling of “big government” in market economics. It’s no surprise that some state legislators vote to put a crimp in plans to limit growth and create as many loopholes as they can.
     The issue would be less heated if developers and home buyers paid the full cost of new developments. In fact, the real cost of a new development includes all the aforementioned infrastructure that can greatly exceed the cost of residence alone--and infrastructure costs are customarily paid for by state and local taxes.
     Another constituency offended by “smart growth” is all the landowners eager to sell agricultural land at suburban land prices. They watch the suburbs encroaching all around them, and those nearing retirement especially welcome the opportunity to sell out to developers. Why go on struggling with bad harvests and falling milk prices when the pasture is now worth millions?
     If you drove around Baltimore’s outer suburbs last October you’d see thickets of Sauerbrey signs and very few Glendenings. For those who have made the move to outer space, continuing to bear the burdens of the city and its inner suburbs is unattractive. Bu all economic issues are also political, and the politics of development is complex. Most of those who move out want development to stop as soon as they’ve got their spread.
     Tom Horton is a highly respect columnist, and his essays surely receive editorial support. But in the same issue of the Sun that his article appeared on page two, the front page of the Sun’s Real Estate Advertising Supplement featured a huge full-color photo of just the kind of elegant home on its five-acre lot that environmental planners criticize as “sprawl.” In newspaper publishing too, it seems, money talks.
     This is not venality; rather inevitable. Advertisers do not control editorial policy, or editors control advertising. In one publication we see the same forces at work that conflict in the local economy.
     But so long as population increases, old neighborhoods deteriorate, and the economy prospers, there will be expansion, whether viewed as sprawl or elegant living.
     Recycling cities isn’t easy. You can build your waterfront condominiums beside the Inner Harbor, but so long as their residents are mugged, their cars stolen, their local schools failing, and their taxes astronomical, the movement up, up, and away will continue.
     For the escapists, “smart growth” is on the fringes.


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This story was published on Apr. 7, 1999.