OLR Research Report

January 13, 2005




By: John Rappa, Principal Analyst

You wanted to know if any towns implement smart growth policies.


Your question assumes that towns primarily develop and implement smart growth policies on their own. We must address that assumption before we can answer your question.

Smart growth mainly refers to state policies that attempt to shape long-term development patterns. Maryland Governor Parris Glendening coined the term in 1997 when he proposed several bills designed to conserve farms, forests, and open spaces by steering development to already developed areas, some of which were distressed and in need of new development. This goal, and Glendening's strategy to achieve it, drew national attention.

The bills, which the legislature enacted, channeled state highway, water and sewer, and other development money to developed areas and other places slated for managed growth. But they did not require towns to adopt any new regulatory measures. “Land use controls, such as zoning codes and environmental regulations, remain important, but smart growth typically seeks to supplement these provisions using incentives rather than additional regulation” (Pollard, “Smart Growth: The Promise, Politics, and Potential Pitfalls of Emerging Growth Management Strategies,” 2001 Zoning and Planning Law Handbook).

In other words, Maryland's smart growth laws discouraged, but did not ban new development in largely undeveloped areas. They did this by restricting the funds needed to build the supporting roads and sewers to those areas where the state preferred development. As discussed below, this approach is similar to Connecticut's.

Despite its origins as a statewide policy, smart growth now includes a critical reappraisal of the traditional local practice of locating stores and offices away from homes and apartments. Some commentators blame this “bedrock principle of zoning” for development patterns that spread out into undeveloped areas, cause towns to spend more tax dollars on infrastructure, and force people to use their cars.


State and towns have been applying smart growth principles before Maryland adopted its smart growth laws. Since the mid 1970s, the Office of Policy and Management has been preparing and updating a five-year State Plan of Conservation and Development, which, as its name suggests, designates areas that the state prefers to develop or conserve. Major state highway, building construction, and economic development projects must conform to this plan.

State economic development programs also favored urban areas. The state offers many financial and tax incentives to businesses that locate or expand in designated cities. These included property tax exemptions, corporate business tax credits, and extra economic development dollars available to businesses that build, expand, or rehabilitate industrial and commercial properties in economically distressed “enterprise zones.”

While the state promotes smart growth largely through its infrastructure and economic development policies, towns do so through their land use plans and regulations. This usually involves changing the regulations to allow apartments, stores, theaters, offices, and other different but compatible uses to locate in the same zone, including downtowns and other densely developed areas.

Stamford began doing this in the mid 1970s to maintain its urban centers and preserve its remaining open spaces, explained Stamford planning director Robin Stein. Stamford's 1977 master plan discouraged zone changes that would have allowed new stores and offices north of downtown. The 1984 revision added complementary policies designed to channel proposed housing and commercial projects downtown.

During the 1990s, the city allowed developers to build bigger, more intensive projects downtown and began major structural improvements to the train station. The latter included adding a center island to handle more trains, expanding the station's parking garage, and making it easier for people to get to the station by bike, car, and bus. The city convinced state officials to relocate the University of Connecticut's Stamford branch downtown. And it developed a trail system along the Mill River Corridor that linked the university to the train station. Lastly, the city required proposed new downtown housing developments to include units low- and moderate-income people could afford.