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Smart Growth?

Rocky Mountain News
July 9, 2005

By C. Kenneth Orski and Jane S. Shaw

"Smart-growth" policies, which became popular nationwide during the 1990s, are regulations designed to reduce suburban sprawl and control growth. They encourage people to live close together within walking distance of shops and offices. One goal is to reduce the use of the automobile. Another is to create neighborhoods full of interesting "streetscapes." A third is to cluster people in high densities in order to preserve large areas of open space. Today, smart-growth policies seem to be in retreat. Setbacks have occurred in Maryland, Virginia and Oregon, and new census information suggests that the public does not really embrace the smart growth way of life.

Maryland: No dent in land-use patterns

One sign of smart growth’s weakness comes from Maryland, where former Gov. Paris N. Glendening unveiled a statewide policy in 1997 to manage growth. The idea was to restrict the use of public funds for development to areas where public infrastructure was already being supplied. Counties were to submit plans to the state showing where they wanted growth to occur. These "priority funding areas" would be eligible for state infrastructure financial assistance, but projects outside these areas would not. The policy was hailed as a milestone. But as Peter Whoriskey reported last fall in a series of articles in the Washington Post, Glendening’s initiative has yet to make a significant dent in Maryland’s sprawling land-use patterns.

"A review of key state and local planning records shows no significant shifts in Maryland’s development patterns since the passage of Glendening’s smart growth package," wrote Whoriskey. "Growth still takes place where there was nothing, rather than where it has gone before."

Although he did not have recent figures, Whoriskey noted that in 2001, 75 percent of the land consumed by home building in Maryland was taken from pastures, woods and other parcels outside the smart-growth areas – almost the same percentage as before the program began, according to Maryland Department of Planning records. One possible reason for the failure of Glendening’s smart-growth policy was that it lacked teeth. The state could refuse to fund the necessary public infrastructure but could not veto a project. Large developers and retail giants such as Wal-Mart built anyway, financing the necessary roads and sewers themselves. Local officials refused to stand in the way.

In addition, some local officials viewed Glendening’s efforts as too much state intrusion and so they circumvented the law. Some officials designated as growth areas far more land than was needed to accommodate growth over the next two decades.

For example, Howard County, which was expecting rapid urbanization, took all the land previously slated for development and called the whole thing its smart-growth area. Perhaps most importantly, plans to increase densities in smart-growth areas ran into determined grassroots opposition. Efforts to build townhouses around Metrorail stations in suburban Montgomery County – considered logical places for higher densities because they are close to mass transit -have often been rejected or scaled back due to neighborhood residents’ opposition.

Loudoun County: Exclusionary zoning?

In another setback, the Virginia Supreme Court has thrown out Loudoun County’s slow-growth zoning regulations, which had blocked home building in the western part of the nation’s fastest-growing county. Loudoun County, on the periphery of the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area, has been a battlefield between the forces of development and advocates of smart growth for years. Its population almost tripled in 15 years, from 86,000 in 1990 to 248,000 in 2005. This growth spurred the election of a "smart growth" slate of officials in 1999. Traditionally, Loudoun’s zoning law had required three acres for each new home built in the semirural western part of the county. The board of supervisors changed the zoning rules in January 2003 to require 10 or 20 – and in some cases 50 – acres per house, depending on the property location.

The rationale was that growth should occur in existing communities in the eastern portion of the county. But critics charged that these policies were nothing more than exclusionary policies masquerading as open-space protection. They sheltered wealthy landowners and their pastoral estates from encroaching suburbanization. Other critics pointed out that the new zoning rules would not prevent sprawl. They would simply spread it over a larger area.

A new board elected in 2003 dismantled many of the growth curbs but left the restrictive zoning law, which faced numerous legal challenges filed by aggrieved property owners. On March 3, 2005, Virginia’s highest court declared the 2003 zoning law invalid. The court did not rule on the issue of property rights but on procedural grounds. Loudoun officials, said the court, had not given proper public notice concerning the zoning hearings and had not clearly specified the boundaries of land to be rezoned.

Potentially, the court ruling clears the way for more than 50,000 additional houses on the 300 square miles of western Loudoun County that had been closed to dense development.

Oregon shifts course

One of the most surprising changes occurred in November 2004. By a majority of 61 percent, Oregon voters approved a ballot initiative, Measure 37. It states that the government should compensate property owners when government-imposed land-use restrictions reduce the value of their property. If the government cannot or will not pay, property owners can develop their land as they see fit. In the words of the ballot initiative, "Governments must pay owners, or forgo enforcement, when certain land use restrictions reduce property values."

Because the state has set aside virtually no money to pay landowners, Measure 37, it is feared, will lead to a rash of suburban-style subdivisions outside Oregon’s urban boundaries.

Many local planning officials see the new measure as destroying the state’s land-use system, which has funneled development into clearly defined urban growth areas and protected open space from rampant suburbanization. The initiative is likely to reverberate beyond the borders of Oregon. Smart-growth advocates fear that the new law will strengthen the property rights movement nationwide.

To be sure, anti-sprawl legislation had already lost some of its political momentum. In the early 1990s, a number of states – Florida, Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi – passed property-rights laws to protect landowners from monetary losses caused by restrictive zoning. But none of these measures has had the political and psychological impact of the Oregon initiative. The Seattle Times thought Measure 37 "may have mortally wounded Oregon’s strong land use planning system." Others considered it a public repudiation of the principle of growth management, a policy that Oregon pioneered 30 years ago. Smart-growth advocates fear that the new law will strengthen the property rights movement.

"If it can happen in the progressive state of Oregon, it could happen in any number of other states," one planning official remarked.

And sure enough, there are signs that the property rights revolt is spreading. Citizen groups in the neighboring state of Washington are working to put an Oregon-like initiative on the state ballot. In Montana, a nearly identical bill was introduced in the state legislature. According to the Seattle Times, Dave Hunnicut of Oregonians in Action – Measure 37’s sponsor – is also working with activists in Florida, Wisconsin and South Carolina.

Micropolitan areas growing

Another sign that smart-growth policies face tough times comes from a new census category introduced by the U.S. Office of Management and Budget in 2003. "Micropolitan areas" fall between metropolitan and rural areas. Micros lack the large central city of more than 50,000 residents that is a criterion for a standard metropolitan area, but they are "too urban to be rural," as one demographer has put it. They are a new form of quasi-urban settlement – free-standing, low-density communities ranging from 10,000 to 50,000 people that are outside the geographic influence of metropolitan areas. Almost 30 million people, or one in 10 Americans, live in micropolitan areas.

According to the latest demographic data (Lang, Dhavale and Haworth 2004), these areas, along with exurban (distant suburban) counties, are among the fastest-growing places in the country. Much of their growth is due to the continuing outward migration of young families in search of affordable housing and an environment in which to raise their children.

Some of the higher growth is also attributable to higher fertility rates among residents of the micropolitan places. As commentator Steve Sailer points out, lower densities seem not only to attract families of childbearing age, they also seem to encourage families that are already there to have more children.

Indeed, Portland, Ore. – the city lionized by smart-growthers – is remarkable for its lack of children, the New York Times reported in March. "Officials say that the very things that attract people who revitalize a city – dense vertical housing, fashionable restaurants and shops, and mass transit that makes a car unnecessary – are driving out children by making the neighborhoods too expensive for young families."

Other smart-growth meccas – San Francisco, Boston, Seattle – share the same problem: not enough children "to keep schools running and parks alive with young voices," the Times article said.

No one knows for sure what the urban/suburban landscape of the next few decades will be. But the latest evidence, including recent U.S. Census Bureau data documenting demographic trends since the 2000 census, suggests that the smart-growth movement is having little influence on reshaping America’s urban landscape. The demographic and economic forces driving metropolitan expansion seem too powerful to be reined in by the entreaties of smart-growth advocates.

Jane S. Shaw is a senior fellow at the Property and Environment Research Center in Bozeman, Mont. PERC’s Web site is She can be reached at 406-587-9591 or

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