The unfortunate events surrounding the confirmation process for the Maryland Department of Planning secretary lead to two bigger questions: What should the state’s lead smart-growth agency be doing and, even broader, what is the state of smart growth in Maryland?
Whether you call it smart growth, sustainable growth or urban and regional planning, Maryland has been a national leader at the state and local levels for decades. This is logical given that we are a compact but diverse state that is growing. Our residents expect a high quality of life. Most of our land area is in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Maryland is often referred to as “America in Miniature.”
The Maryland Department of Planning was established in 1959. Basically, its mission is to implement state growth policies, laws and programs; coordinate between state and local agencies on development issues and provide data and analysis; and to provide technical assistance.
This broad mission includes community development, protecting the Chesapeake Bay, land preservation and transportation — collectively called smart growth. I worked for the agency for 23 years, eight of those as secretary during the O’Malley administration. While the Maryland Department of Planning does not build roads, run parks or pull babies out of burning buildings, it is important.
The department was recognized by the American Planning Association as the best planning department in the country in early 2015. But many of the items for which the agency was recognized with this award have been dismantled or damaged by the Hogan administration.
A clear vision for the department under this administration is lacking, and its leaders have suggested that they need to get the department off the backs of local government and have cautioned that its role is solely advisory. While local governments are delegated their powers to plan and zone from state government and there is a significant body of state laws and policies for managing development, conflicts between the state and local governments over growth issues often are exaggerated. This is frequently done by those seeking a laissez faire approach for the agency and those interested in making political points against the agency.
Going forward, Marylanders should be asking what the agency is supposed to be doing, what its priorities are and what it has produced. We also should ask where the state goes next with smart growth. This year marks the 20th anniversary of the 1997 Smart Growth and Neighborhood Conservation Act. This anniversary and recent troubles at the Maryland Department of Planning should spark a conversation about how Maryland grows for the next 20 to 50 years.
Are we growing efficiently, making the best use of infrastructure? Is there enough focus on redevelopment and revitalization of existing communities? Are we building communities that will last and that people will care about? Are we building healthy communities where people can walk to shopping, offices and entertainment and use public transportation? Is our approach scalable from urban to rural communities? Are we growing in ways that protect open space and limit pollution to our bay, rivers and streams? Are we growing equitably, ensuring opportunities for all and decreasing segregation? These are several of the many tough questions that should be discussed by Marylanders as we look to our future.
As a native Marylander, I am hopeful there will be a broad conversation about smart growth. This conversation could happen in many ways, and an opportunity for that presents itself at the University of Maryland’s National Center for Smart Growth Research & Education’s convention later this year.
This column was originally published here.