Smart growth expert: more state involvement needed

Especially in these tough economic times, barriers to development and economic growth are vast. But priority funding areas (PFAs) shouldn’t be one of them, a national agent on smart growth said.

PFAs were created to expedite growth and concentrate state spending in needed areas that would benefit from assistance. While growth is occurring, it is often outside of those designations, Gerrit Knaap, executive director of the National Center for Smart Growth Research and Education told the GBC’s Planning and Project Development committee March 14.

His solution to encourage growth in these areas is for the state to become more involved in local land use planning and its regulatory process, encouraging areas where there is excess infrastructure and uncongested roads to accommodate growth.

“You can’t starve growth to go in the right place,” said Knaap, who is also a professor of Urban Studies and Planning at the University of Maryland.

Knaap cited Oregon as a good example of a state’s involvement in local land use planning. Local plans are submitted to the state which “acknowledges” acceptance of the plan. As opposed to Maryland, where the state currently controls just the spending and not the policy, Oregon state government bless a plan to ensure growth is contained in needed areas.

A study, funded by the Maryland State Builders Association (MSBA) and NAIOP Maryland – The Association for Commercial Real Estate, looked at the influence of PFAs on development patterns in the state. Polling planners, developers and advocates, the study looked to decipher how effective PFAs have been as an urban growth management tool.

Not surprisingly, development occurs less frequently in PFAs due to governing restrictions, such as fees, zoning restrictions and differential financing, as well as market and consumer preferences to certain areas. The impacts of regulations, higher development costs and grandfathered approvals were other cited reasons for development outside PFAs.

Knaap said requiring PFAs to contain sufficient development capacity for 20 years in residential, institutional, commercial and industrial growth as well as incorporating PFAs into local comprehensive plans and plan review processes are ways to improve their use in planning. Currently, PFAs aren’t required in local plans because the state’s finance department regulates the process as opposed to the local land use department, who — presumably — would have more of an investment in its inclusion.

Knaap’s suggestion is for the state to get more involved, but he is also vocal in what they need to do once they get there.

It is well known Maryland has been successful in surviving the unemployment bubble better than other states due to its disproportionate reliance on federal government as an employer.

He talked about the “1 percent cluster,” where 1.2 percent of the land holds 38.8 percent of the jobs. He identified Salisbury and Frederick as outliers — diverse clusters that rely on many different industries and commerce to survive, effectively, in their own, self-sustaining communities. In order for more counties and towns in Maryland to reach this smart growth zenith, the state’s development plans need to incorporate statistics and data into their planning process.

PlanMaryland, according to Knaap, needs strategies to address assimilating minority and immigrant populations; revitalizing Baltimore, Western Maryland and the upper Eastern Shore; competing with Northern Virginia for economic growth; and focusing transportation investment to support cluster economic development.

The mere designation of PFAs currently does nothing to incite growth in these areas and while “you can’t starve growth to go in the right place,” it would seem to Knaap a more manageable undertaking with the state’s involvement.

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