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Richard Eberhart Hall: Why smart growth strengthens rural areas

Richard Eberhart Hall//November 28, 2013

Richard Eberhart Hall: Why smart growth strengthens rural areas

By Richard Eberhart Hall

//November 28, 2013

Maryland is a great, compact and diverse state — some call it “America in miniature.” It is important that we work together and celebrate that diversity as one Maryland, not to opportunistically pit one region of the state against the other.

That’s why it was unfortunate that there were so many misconceptions in the Nov. 18 article “Economist: State policies ‘at war’ with rural areas” to which I’d like to respond. The article was a synopsis of a presentation by Anirban Basu, chairman of Sage Policy Group, to the Maryland Rural Counties Coalition about Maryland’s rural economies. In his presentation, Basu blamed state growth policies for the slow economic recovery in rural Maryland.

Basu fails to acknowledge that Maryland’s smart growth policies are focused on limiting large-lot residential development on forest and agricultural land. The focus is not to limit commercial and industrial development. If anything, smart growth strengthens the agricultural economies of rural counties by making it easier to maintain large swaths of productive agricultural land. At the same time, smart growth policies — which spawned such programs as the Sustainable Communities initiative — target public resources toward revitalizing rural Maryland towns.

No North Dakota

Basu said that rural Maryland did not fare well compared with resource-rich states such as North Dakota, Texas and Oklahoma, an unfair comparison by many measures, including the dramatic differences in land area and the presence of vast oil and natural gas reserves in those states.

Contrary to what Basu would have us believe, smart land use is as vital to rural areas as to more populated ones. Protecting our agricultural land, Chesapeake Bay and other natural areas, which continue to be threatened by large-lot sprawl development, are critical to rural jobs. According to the University of Maryland, forestry and agriculture combine to support almost 46,000 jobs across the state, contributing to over $8 billion to the economy. Most of those activities occur within rural areas.

Low-density residential sprawl does not “save rural Maryland.” We want to strengthen and protect Maryland’s 12,800 family farms and the thousands of jobs they support.

Help for farmers

The O’Malley-Brown administration has invested heavily in rural Maryland in a difficult economy, especially when compared with the prior administration. According to a September “Local Government Finances in Maryland” report, Rural Coalition member counties have received the most revenue in state grants per capita. Between fiscal year 2008 and fiscal year 2012, local revenue in the form of state grants in the 10 Rural Coalition member counties averaged $1,386 per capita, 14 percent higher than the average among all other counties ($1,211 per capita). That investment includes funding for public education, school construction, expanded health care and money to help farmers plant a record number of cover crops.

We can’t deny that Maryland’s economy faces challenges. The reduction of manufacturing jobs in Maryland and elsewhere is not the result of smart growth policies, but rather a consequence of a decades-long loss of these jobs to the South and, later, overseas.

Rural Maryland remains a vital part of the state’s quality of life and economic vitality. By focusing development and distribution of scarce public resources, smart growth policies will help ensure that existing rural, as well as suburban and urban communities, will be in the best position to continue to grow and prosper. Let’s work toward One Maryland.

Richard Eberhart Hall, AICP, is secretary of the Maryland Department of Planning. 


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