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Smart-Growth Efforts Lag

Look to Maryland: Well-planned development can save money

Hartford Courant Editorial

October 03, 2011

Officials in Maryland have, unlike most of their counterparts in Connecticut, figured out that sprawl is expensive. They are doing something about it. We, not so much.

As reported in The Atlantic Magazine, land development in Maryland has grown at three times the rate of population over the past few decades. More than a quarter of the state's land has been developed, mostly as single-family homes. The state will add a million residents by 2035. If the present growth pattern continues and it will unless it is stopped the state will lose more than 400,000 acres of forest and farm by that year, at a cost of billions of dollars for new roads and other infrastructure.

So three years ago, Gov. Martin O'Malley and others initiated an extensive planning process called PlanMaryland, which is now nearing completion. The gist of the plan is to increase housing density in areas that are already have roads, water and other infrastructure. To achieve this, the state will focus its money in "priority" funding areas where the density is at least 3.5 housing units per acre.

Planners believe that if 80 percent of the growth in each county can be so captured, 300,000 acres of open space will be preserved and $1.5 billion a year in infrastructure costs will be saved.

Sprawl Is Overtaking Connecticut

If the pollution, energy waste, aesthetic damage and social isolation inherent in sprawl aren't of concern, the money ought to get the attention of Connecticut officials. A savings of $1.5 billion would have closed the state's budget gap earlier this year.

How is Connecticut's effort to battle sprawl coming?

Sprawl is winning, hands down. Open space is still being paved over for low-density subdivisions. But there are some building blocks in place that could with resources and leadership begin to make a difference.

In the middle of the last decade, the Connecticut legislature passed a number of smart-growth bills. The most effective thus far probably has been the Community Investment Act, which created a special fund using a $30 real estate document recording fee to pay for farmland preservation, open space acquisition, affordable housing and historic preservation. The law has been very successful, providing tens of millions of dollars for these smart-growth goals.

The HOMEConnecticut program, passed in 2007, provides incentives to municipalities for creating affordable housing. Before it was suspended for budgetary reasons last year, 50 towns had applied for planning grants and a half-dozen were ready to move ahead. The Malloy administration is poised to restart the program, and it should. HomeConnecticut can help create the transit-oriented development needed to solidify the state's transit investments.

The Regional Performance Incentive Program, which encourages towns and cities to cooperate in finding economies of scale, was suspended in 2008 after providing $8.6 million for municipal shared-services projects. But it is coming back a positive step. Towns working together almost always save money.

The state also embraced responsible growth in a 2005 law that required all municipal, regional and state plans of conservation and development to adopt smart-growth principles. A key provision of this law was that the next revision of the state plan, which was due in 2010, designate Priority Funding Areas, places where the state would invest its money to encourage responsible growth.

However, the plan hasn't come out yet. It has been delayed twice and is now due in 2013. As in Maryland, this step could really begin to turn the battleship and create on-the-ground smart growth. But the odds are better in Maryland, for two reasons.

One, Maryland has a cabinet-level state planning department with 150 people. Connecticut has five people in its Office of Responsible Growth, which is in the Office of Policy and Management.

Second, smart growth needs leadership from the governor. Gov. O'Malley is pushing hard for PlanMaryland. Connecticut Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has not said much about it thus far. He should. He is trying to boost the state's economy, and most smart-growth measures do exactly that.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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