Sprawl is Maryland’s Enemy
|January 9, 2007||Posted by Staff under Progress Report, The Progress Report|
Maryland’s Greatest Enemy
It’s rare that people in cities, suburbs and rural areas all agree on something. But every resident of Maryland is now aware, or will soon become aware, of the dangers of urban sprawl. Sprawl makes cities lose their economic vitality; makes suburban residents pay high taxes and endure ugly developments, automobile pollution and premature destruction of environmentally sensitive areas; forces farmers to give up their heritage and move away to make room for more shopping centers.
Writing in a recent issue of Baltimore Resources, John Kabler states: “Sprawl development is ugly, destructive and expensive. It destroys farms, fields and open space. It kills streams and causes traffic jams. It drains cities’ treasuries, creates unpleasant new neighborhoods, and raises everyone’s taxes. If left unchecked it will ruin the Chesapeake Bay and turn Maryland’s countryside into a Los Angeles style suburban nightmare.” Indeed, Marylanders are facing longer commuting times, less open space, worse Bay pollution, and even higher taxes in what is already one of America’s highest tax states.
Kabler is right. Growth pressure is enormous in Maryland, and government’s current policies promote sprawl rather than compact, efficient development.
Maryland’s Department of State Planning should be credited with seeing the dangers of sprawl quite clearly in 1985, when it published a report titled “Land Use or Abuse?” The report noted many disturbing trends, among them these two:
- Residential uses accounted for 90% of the increase in urban and suburban land in Maryland during the 197Os. The overwhelming majority of this [residential development] was very ‘low density.
- The acreage covered by residential development increased nearly three times as fast as population. This means that there is another unmistakable land use trend in Maryland — the amount of land being used per capita is increasing”
What can we do in response to this growing threat to our environment, our cities, our neighborhoods, our farms, our forests? The Governor established a task force to recommend solutions. You may recall it was dubbed the”2020″ commission and that its plan was turned down flat by the state legislature during the 1991 session.
Why was the 2020 plan defeated? This plan would have designated certain areas in the state as “growth” and other areas as “protected.” In this way sprawl could be contained and infix development increased instead. The idea was nice and sweet, but stupid. It ignored economic reality. People who own lands in areas designated as “growth” would enjoy greater demand for their sites than before, so they would increase their asking prices. This is not mere theory, it is a fact that has been demonstrated again and again in recent U.S. history. Thus with the 2020 plan, development in “growth” areas would have become more expensive than before, and land speculators would have enjoyed a windfall. But development was already not taking place in these areas — making infill development even more expensive will not encourage it! Developers will still find it more profitable to create structures in other areas, as they do today, even if they have to pay new penalties or bribes. This simple economic reality escaped the 2020 planners.
What’s the real solution? Take economics into account. The main reason we have so much sprawl today is that it’s more profitable for developers to satisfy demand by developing in pristine, rural areas rather than in areas that are already somewhat developed. If we change the economics by removing governmental barriers to infill, we can make it cheaper for development to take place within places like Baltimore City, rather than gobbling up pastures and forests.
Developers would always prefer to develop where infrastructure such as sewer lines and electrical service, and services such as police and fire protection, schools, etc., are already present. Unfortunately, our governments penalize infill development by slapping a high property tax against housing and other buildings; so it becomes more profitable to create a whole new building in the countryside than to maintain or rehabilitate a decaying structure in a city.
Meanwhile, land speculators, slumlords and others who hold good sites for infill but don’t use them are taxed very little. In Baltimore City, for instance, land values pay only 28% of the property tax; housing and other structures are hit with 72% of the burden. This must stop before the quality of life in Maryland and the entire Chesapeake Bay region will be safe.
If we are serious about preserving open space and fighting against sprawl, we must make development cheaper and easier in those already-developed areas designated for infill development, not more expensive. The government must stop penalizing infill development — cut the property tax on improvements. Encourage land speculators and slum landlords to start putting their urban sites to use — raise the property tax on land values. Every acre of infill development that takes place will save many untouched acres from ugly, premature urban sprawl.
This approach, because it actually addresses the causes of sprawl and not just the symptoms, will work and will keep Maryland’s environment and family farms safe from development pressure.
This article appears courtesy of UrbanTools.org