“Smart Growth” essential to preserving what we love about where we live!

What does “smart growth” mean to you?

Certainly most Frederick County residents have heard of “Smart Growth,” as it has become a frequently used and increasingly familiar term over the past two decades. But, even if nobody is for dumb growth, it doesn’t mean that “smart growth” means the same thing to everyone, or that we all share the same view about what constitutes good, responsible…or smart…planning and development.

The origins of “smart growth” as a distinct term, with a clear and shared definition, can’t be readily pinpointed, but it seems to have evolved out of a few reports and plans in the nineties, including the “Smart Growth and Neighborhood Conservation Act,” which passed in Maryland twenty years ago.

It’s not surprising that the term or concept is often poorly understood, especially since it is often appropriated and misused, out of ignorance or for self-serving purposes, by those from politicians to development interests. Some have attempted to characterize “smart growth” as just a way to say “no-growth,” or have used it as a way to sell certain development plans.

If we’re going to use the term, or even other, similar terms we hear from candidates during elections, or from developers, such as responsible growth or managed growth or measured growth, it’s important we have a better sense of what we are talking about.

The key to understanding what the term actually means is knowing that it’s a list or combination of separate but related principles, values and goals.

Something is not “smart growth” because it reflects or embodies just one or two of the principles, but we see it used that way all the time, when something is described as smart growth just because it is infill, or higher density, or near public transit, or has a mix of uses, and so on.

For instance, when I was a county commissioner, and the liaison to the Frederick County Planning Commission, we heard a land use attorney, who was representing a developer and advocating for a particular project, describe the proposed development as “smart growth” simply because it was “infill.”

What was being proposed was a low density, rural subdivision of new homes, all on well and septic, on a tract of farmland and forest. He described it as “infill” because the farm and woodland happened to be situated between two older rural and isolated subdivisions constructed a few decades earlier, when the county wasn’t thinking or worried about suburban sprawl, or the preservation of good farmland, or the actual cost of developing infrastructure and providing public services.

Whether you think a lot more of that sort of development is a reasonable way to approach land use in our growing county or not, please appreciate that it is not “infill,” as the term is meant to be used, that it is unlikely to conform to most or any other smart growth principles, and that it isn’t, as the attorney argued, “Smart Growth.”

Nowadays, many requests for zoning changes or annexations are made, and more than a few development projects are proposed under the banner of smart growth because they are said to, or even actually do, conform to one or two of these principles.

If we cherry-pick a single principle or two, and we ignore the longer list and the broader concept, and don’t use and apply the term thoughtfully and properly, even massive suburban sprawl is possible under the label of “smart growth.”

You can find a few different lists of the basic principles that describe “smart growth,” but they are all only slight variations on this list:

1. Mix land uses

2. Take advantage of compact building design

3. Create a range of housing opportunities and choices

4. Create walkable neighborhoods

5. Foster distinctive, attractive communities with a strong sense of place

6. Preserve open space, farmland, natural beauty, and critical environmental areas

7. Strengthen and direct development towards existing communities

8. Provide a variety of transportation choices

9. Make development decisions predictable, fair and cost effective

10. Encourage community and stakeholder collaboration in development decisions

In short, among other things, “smart growth” is a means of ensuring sound, high quality choices for the future of our communities and our economy, by maintaining and revitalizing existing communities, protecting the value of our public investments, and minimizing obviously negative impacts such as traffic congestion, air and water pollution, the degradation and loss of natural habitats and farmland, overcrowded schools, and more, which can be fairly viewed as ways we residents and taxpayers subsidize poorly planned growth with unnecessary sacrifices to the quality of life in the broader community we call home.

“Smart Growth” helps or enables us to avoid the trap of allowing current growth pressures — and they are not likely to go away — to diminish our future through a wide variety of unnecessary and undesirable negative impacts.

For many reasons, including our proximity to two major metropolitan areas, our position along major interstate highways, our relatively prosperous and attractive small cities and towns, the natural beauty of the county and more, Frederick County is going to grow.

And it will grow, albeit a little faster or slower, perhaps, regardless of how much or how well we plan for that growth…and even if we plan so poorly that traffic gets worse or schools are overcrowded or recreational parks are inadequate or the air quality diminishes, etc.

So, while we have to recognize things will change, it is vital for us to be smart in preparing and planning for those changes, and basic smart growth principles provide an invaluable and helpful foundation to consider the consequences and possibilities.

Think of it this way: The opposite of smart growth — or growth that does not apply these basic principles — is random sprawl, which will, eventually, consume our farmland and open spaces, leaving our incorporated towns and other established communities connected by and lost in a sea of suburbia, along with all of the clearly negative consequences that comes with it, from much worse traffic to higher taxes and a far too long list of other things most of us would like to avoid.

Using smart growth principles, good planning initiatives identify the relationship between how we grow and our quality of life, and include policies and practices that promoting better housing, transportation, economic development and protection of our environment.

Smart growth is essential to getting beyond the never-ending and false debate between growth and no growth, so we can focus effectively on how best to plan and direct for the growth that is coming.

And that is only possible with informed and involved citizens.