Governor Glendening’s Smart Growth
By Jeannine M. L. Morber
By Jeannine M. L. Morber
Sounds silly, doesn’t it?
Not to Lou Breitenother. He has a ninety-two acre farm in South Carroll County. His farm is much bigger and grander than the above imaginary rose bushes scenario, but the concept is the same. Mr. Breitenother is old and tired and can no longer manage his property as a working farm. He also can no longer afford to pay the property tax on his vast acreage (Brown, par. 2). But he can’t sell his land because nobody wants it. It is zoned for agriculture only and because of the strict local zoning laws, it can only be sold as a farm or can only be developed with one house per twenty acres (Brown, par. 19).
The Breitenothers are just two victims of Governor Glendening’s Smart Growth initiatives. There are also many other victims besides farmland owners: the poor, minorities, and families wanting to live in crime free spacious rural surroundings. In fact, all those who seek affordable, safe, peaceful, country living will be denied their dreams. They are considered environmental criminals, assumed guilty of the dreaded crime of ‘sprawl’.
The term ‘sprawl’, once used to express the movement of people spreading outward to inhabit and explore new territory, now has quite a negative bite. Although ‘sprawl’ is what created our vast country, it is now considered the blight of the environment. Currently, people move or ‘sprawl’ for many reasons - - to escape crime, to have more space, to escape foul air and water, to raise children in a more natural environment. Advocates of Smart Growth now consider this popular American Dream, a nightmare.
Maryland’s Governor Paris N. Glendening, chairman of the National Governors Association, has been credited with coining the term “Smart Growth” nationwide (Hayward, par. 2). In 1997, the Maryland General Assembly passed the Governor’s proposed Smart Growth and Neighborhood Conservation Initiatives (Maryland State Government, par. 1). The goal of these initiatives is to “preserve some of Maryland’s valuable resource and open space lands, and discourage the continuation of sprawling development into our rural areas” (Maryland State Government, par. 1). The Governor blames sprawl for air pollution, traffic congestion, higher taxes, water shortages, overcrowded schools and the decline of agricultural land. Smart Growth aims to solve these problems by forming denser communities, discouraging automobile use, limiting the size of housing lots and enforcing the use of public transportation.
Columbia Maryland, a thirty-four year ‘young’ city is considered to be a prime example of successful Smart Growth development. The city boasts itself as a “planned community” that “strives to be a better kind of community that welcomes diversity, respects the land and fosters the growth of individuals” (Morrison, screen 1). Yet, according to statistics at the Homestore.com website, the average price for a three bedroom home in Columbia is $195,000, and the crime rate is twenty-six points higher than the national average and eighty-one points higher than in Westminster (City Reports). The traffic congestion in Columbia is also high and on a par with other ‘non-planned’ Maryland cities of comparable size.
Is sprawl truly to blame then for all of the societal woes that Governor Glendening insists Smart Growth will cure? And if so, does government have the right to deny farmland owners the rights to sell their property or deny home-seeking citizens the right to rural home ownership?
The argument of Smart Growth advocates that our farmland must be saved is intriguing. Wendell Cox, a senior fellow in urban policy at The Independence Institute, summarized a United States Department of Agriculture report and writes that “research has shown that farmland conversion to urban use does not pose a threat to U.S. food and fiber production” (qtd. in “So-Called” sec. 3). True, agricultural land has declined by 15% since 1950, but production has risen by more than 105 % (qtd. in “So-Called” sec. 3). According to Cox, farmers have simply become more efficient at growing more crops on less land. Urban areas are still less than 3.5% of the total U.S. land area and from 1949 until 1997, for every acre of new urban development, approximately 1.5 acres have been used to established rural parks (“Retarding “ sec. 5).
If our farmland is actually not in such grave danger, then why is it so pressing that we protect it? Lou Breitnother’s wife Flo, has some insight: “What makes me angriest,” says Flo, “are the people who want the farms to stay farms so they can drive by in their cars and say ‘Oh that looks beautiful’” (qtd. in Brown, par. 5).
Fortunately some communities are taking a stand. The NAACP in Richland, South Carolina is considering suing Richland County on the grounds that its Smart Growth policies violate the Constitution’s Fifth Amendment (Berlau, par. 14). Lower Richland is a predominately African American farming community. Many of the farm owners are descendants of slaves or sharecroppers who were able to purchase their land over one hundred years ago (Berlau, par. 6). Richland’s Smart Growth plan was adopted in 1999 and directs all farmland and forestland as ‘preservation’ land that cannot be developed (Berlau, par. 7). Laverne Neal owns seventy-five acres of farmland in Richland, purchased 135 years ago by her former slave father-in-law. Not only can she no longer sell her land as anything but a farm, but she must also allow public right-of-way for hiking and biking trails (Carlisle, “Anti-Black” sec. 5). More financially devastating is that her ability to borrow money against her land has been severely diminished because agricultural land has decreased value as collateral (Dupont, par. 4).
The lost sense of control over personal property seems to be as devastating as the financial losses. “I think if I struggled, I ought to be able to be the one to make the decision of what I’m going to do with my land” says seventy-year old Mrs. Neal (qtd in Berlau, par. 5).
Dell Isham, president of the South Carolina chapter of The Sierra Club, a national environmental organization that supports Smart Growth policies, responded with “True farmers have nothing to worry about. For the true farmer, it is good” (qtd in Berlau, par. 18). If anyone should be considered ‘true farmers’, it is Mrs. Neal and her family. She and her family grew corn and cut cotton for generations. She and her husband spent seven years building their home with their own hands and sweat (Berlau, par. 2). Now, because of Smart Growth, the land that her slave ancestors struggled for is practically worthless.
In Carroll County Maryland, Commissioners Donald I. Dell and Robin Bartlett Frazier voted in October of 2001 to change local zoning laws to allow farmland owners to develop land with one house per three acres, instead of only one house per twenty acres. The commissioners realized that farmland preservation should not hurt farmland owners. Commissioner Frazier stated “Carroll County’s goal is not only to preserve agricultural land, but preserve agricultural business. The law does both by offering farmers a chance at some capital and collateral…” (Walker, par. 9). The change to the zoning law was intended to protect the Lou Breitenothers and the Lavern Neals who have dedicated their lives to farming, and could be faced with worthless land because of Smart Growth initiatives.
The state of Maryland soon issued an ultimatum to Carroll County. “Repeal a contentious new zoning law by Jan 15 2002 or farmland preservation programs will be cut” reported Childs Walker of The Baltimore Sun (par. 1). Amendments to the changed zoning law were recently passed in order to comply with the state. The changes still allow for three-acre lots, but with more restrictions regarding buildable land free from wetlands and slopes (Simms A1). Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge voted against the original zoning changes, and has consistently voted against Dell and Frazier on most issues regarding property rights and farmland in her effort to support Smart Growth. She ‘sat out’ the recent amendment and refused to vote.
The zone changes, even with the amendments, will help alleviate the Carroll County farmers’ struggle to retain the value of their land. The changes will also give some families the means to purchase housing more in accordance with their dreams. Surveys have shown that most people, regardless of income, prefer the suburbs. Most approve of the ‘idea’ of a Smart Growth Community, but do not embrace the thought of actually living in one. A survey by the National Association of Builders discovered that eighty-three percent of respondents would rather live in single-family detached homes in an outlying suburb, than in an inner city townhouse (Carlisle, “Suburban Snob” par. 5). A Milwaukee survey asked respondents where they felt further development should occur and most said in a major city, although sixty-five percent said they would not want to live there (Taylor and Van Doren, par. 5).
Even though three-acre lots are more affordable than twenty-acre lots for middle income America, there is still concern that Smart Growth communities cause housing prices to drastically increase, leaving those with lower incomes out in the cold. Advocates of the poor and minorities are becoming increasingly concerned about the rising home prices in Smart Growth communities. Home ownership is considered the main factor that defines personal wealth. Home ownership accounts for up to forty-five percent of the wealth of those with incomes between $20,000 and $49,000 (Cox and Utt, par. 3). John Carlisle, director of the Environmental Policy Task Force for the National Center for Public Policy, emphatically states that Smart Growth is causing home prices to skyrocket and it is ‘morally indefensible” (“Suburban Snob” par. 4). “In fact” writes Carlisle “Smart Growth is often nothing more than a thinly-disguised attempt by well-heeled suburbanites to keep undesirable newcomers out of their neighborhoods” (“Suburban Snob” par. 2). The Honorable Malcolm Wallop, former U.S Senator for eighteen years, co-wrote the multi-authored book, A Guide to Smart Growth: Shattering Myths, Providing Solutions. In the preface, he writes that “the closer Americans come to obtaining the dream of ‘Home on the Range’ living, the less likely they are willing to share it” (5). He also questions that since minorities are becoming more financially able to break free of city living, “are we to now tell them the party is over?”(6).
Wallop and Carlisle are not alone with this opinion. The Independence Institute, a non-partisan, non-profit public policy research organization, is very outspoken about the concern of minorities and affordable homeownership. John Caldara, the Institute’s President, held a press conference on the steps of the Colorado State Capitol last April regarding the state legislators endorsing Smart Growth. Mr. Caldara announced his discovery that ninety-five percent of the state legislators own homes, while only sixty-eight percent of the remaining Colorado residents own homes (qtd. in “Minorities Hurt” par. 1). Mr. Caldara then bluntly stated “Basically, the legislators are a group of white guys with homes who are voting to deny homes to Colorado’s working families” (qtd. in “Minorities Hurt” par. 9).
Portland Oregon is a typical example of escalating home prices due to Smart Growth. Yet, Portland is considered by Smart Growth advocates to be the prime example of so-called successful Smart Growth. Dr. David Suzuki narrated a film entitled Understanding Urban Sprawl which depicts Portland as a model Smart Growth Community. Suzuki praises Portland’s town square, tight close housing, walkways and rail system (“Understanding”). The city was revitalized according to Smart Growth initiatives in the 1990’s. The initiatives were so strict that regulations were imposed on everything from the number and locations of retail parking spaces to the number of people who can attend Sunday church service (O’Toole 21). The result? The gridlock on Interstate 5 has rapidly increased and “Portland has recently been found to be in violation of air quality standards” (Cox, “How Smart” par. 20). In 1991, Portland was ranked fifty-five of the most affordable cities in America, but due to Smart Growth overhaul, Portland is now ranked 174- - the second least affordable city in the nation (Carlisle, “Suburban Snob” sec. 2). Unfortunately, Portland is only one example of the skyrocketing home prices as a result of Smart Growth initiatives. “Napa California implemented a Smart Growth program and home prices rose 158%, resulting in an average home price of $373,000” (Carlisle, “Suburban Snob’ par. 9).
In Maryland, Baltimore County’s Fall Road Corridor was recently featured in the Real Estate section of The Baltimore Sun. The six-mile area is considered prime real estate because of the limits on lot sizes, limits on density, the proximity to Baltimore’s best private and public schools, and the “pastoral ambience” (Jones-Bonbrest L1). The community has its own association that successfully petitioned to have its 1,200 acres “rezoned to a more restrictive watershed protective zone” which changed the lot limit from sixty-six per 100 acres to twenty lots per 100 acres in 2000 ( Jones-Bonbrest L1). The Falls Road Corridor Association is now focused on limiting traffic and limiting growth to ‘protect the area’s stream beds’ ( Jones-Bonbrest L1). “It is not in the interest of Smart Growth to extend it,” says John Meredith, the president of the association (qtd. in Jones-Bonbrest L1).
And the minimum price of a Falls Road Corridor home? One half million dollars.
Robert Nusgart, real estate editor for The Baltimore Sun, recently wrote an in depth article on the decrease in available homes for sale in Baltimore and surrounding counties. According to Nusgart, available homes for sale have dropped by almost one third since January of 2000 while home prices have skyrocketed (pars. 1-12). Among other factors, Nusgart blames Smart Growth and other state and local no-growth policies for the decline in affordable housing in the area (sec. 2).
There is a growing view that many Smart Growth advocates are simply those who ‘have’ and want to ensure that others ‘have not’. These advocates want their spacious rural living to stay pristine, and are hiding behind environmental concerns to do so. More importantly, they are shamefully doing so by using the ‘saving the environment’ platform, which is more socially acceptable than the politically incorrect NIMBY platform, ‘not in my backyard’.
Smart Growth should not be a free license for government to dictate how property owners can use their land, nor cause home prices to skyrocket in desirable communities. Sadly, Smart Growth has also become the lamb’s wool cloak for the wolf-like ‘have’s to further their effort to keep the ‘have nots’ out of their neighborhoods.
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