Volume 12, Issue 31 ~ July 29-August 4, 2004
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Will ‘Priority Places’ Run Smart Growth into the Ground?
Smart Growth has resurfaced in the administration of Gov. Robert Ehrlich, but the first major development decision since its reappearance wouldn’t seem so smart by the standards we’re used to.

Back in the administration of Parris Glendening, Smart Growth was enacted to rein in sprawl by directing new building to already developed areas. With its whip hand, the law denied tax revenues for roads, bridges and infrastructure in virgin territory. With its carrot hand, the law delivered those revenues to Smart Growth, or projects planned for developed territory.

Under Ehrlich, Smart Growth is a horse of another as yet undetermined color.

First, it’s back wearing a new name. Earlier this month, Ehrlich’s Planning Secretary Audrey Scott introduced Priority Places at the groundbreaking for Annapolis Towne Center on the site of Parole Plaza.

Under the old order, Smart Growth was used to “purchase large tracts of rural land that might never be developed,” Scott told the gathering celebrating the resurrection of a place that’s been off anybody’s priority list for many years.

In the new order, she said, her boss was taking “Smart Growth to the next level.” Under its new name, Priority Places, Scott said that Smart Growth — which Ehrlich abolished as an independent office — would have subcabinets in every department of state. From within, officers will work with developers in support of “existing established community brownfields and shopping malls that need revitalization and repopulation,” she said.

“It’s about bringing people back,” Scott said.

In other words, Smart Growth, which once provided strict guidelines for development, now stables with developers and runs on their tracks.

There’s nothing dumb about redeveloping wasteland and brownfields. But in a second Smart Growth sighting last week, the governor raised our sensors. In a Board of Public Works meeting, he led a successful effort to overrule Smart Growth — for only the second time ever. The 2–1 vote by the board is the first step to widening eight miles of Route 32 in Howard County as it passes through rural land that old Smart Growth would have placed off limits.

The eight miles in question interrupt a four-lane east-west highway artery. The governor argued that on this stretch, relieving congestion should trump preservation. So it’s a perfect test case of values: preserving open space on the one hand, abetting hustle and bustle on the other.

Now as we reflect on the governor’s challenge to Smart Growth, Secretary Scott’s words — “about bringing people” — echo with a new edge.

Together, the two occasions have us alert to where Smart Growth — by its new name, on a new track — may be headed.

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