- The Washington Times - Friday, December 1, 2000

Sitting in rush hour traffic stinks. Our environment needs to be protected. Neighborhood parks are more important than office buildings. Feelings like these are widely held by Americans, but answers don't come easily when the competing demands of growing communities conflict with residents who don't want developments in their backyards.

Many communities have tried no-growth policies and prohibitive zoning, but urban sprawl isn't even slowing in many areas. What can be done?

The fashionable solution these days isn't "no growth" it's "smart growth." "No growth" often backfires, because expansion can't be stopped by regulations. The growth is simply pushed into the next city or county, for instance forcing people with jobs in the District to live 20 to 40 miles from work. "Smart growth," on the other hand, emphasizes higher-density growth near existing infrastructure and protecting open spaces in the outlying suburbs from development.

The Evans Farm development off Route 123 in McLean is a good example of how the strategy works. McLean-based Craftmark Group is building a community there of tightly packed houses that have alleys and garages in the back. Placing large houses on smaller lots puts more people on less land. This keeps the population density high inside the Beltway and relieves the congestion of commuters coming into the District from outside the Beltway.

Despite the advantages of this kind of planning, Evans Farm still faced a battle with area residents who didn't want to lose all that green space near their homes.

This kind of confrontation is happening all over the country, because America is growing. Each year, our population increases by 2.7 million people, requiring 1.5 million new housing units every year, according to the Urban Land Institute. Although they are vilified by many environmentalists and no-growth advocates, builders provide us all with places to live.

Where to build those places is the tough question that smart growth hopes to answer. Should more homes be packed into Arlington, Silver Spring and Hyattsville? Or should new homes replace farmland in Anne Arundel, Frederick and Loudoun counties in Maryland and Virginia?

"We're being told no on both fronts, which makes it very difficult," says Hamer Campbell, director of government affairs at the National Capital Area Building Industry Association.

"A lot of people fight against high-density development, but to keep people near mass transit and their jobs, you have to build more homes on less land," he says.

The Ballston area of Arlington County is an example of tight planning done well, according to the ULI. The group has cited the Ballston Sector Plan of 1980 as a success because Arlington recognized long ago the importance of placing more people closer to Metrorail service. The plan concentrated the highest-density development right around the Ballston Metro station. The density tapers off as you move into the surrounding neighborhoods with their single-family homes.

But even this success story has been tainted by a lack of comprehensive planning. Ballston sits right next to I-66, a four-lane commuter thoroughfare choked with cars every morning and afternoon. Arlington residents fought tooth and nail to forbid I-66 from ever becoming the six- or eight-lane highway that usage demands, dooming themselves and commuters to millions of wasted hours on the road.

Smart growth could solve some of these problems, but it takes long-range vision and discipline.

Bob Kauffman is vice president of Michael T. Rose Inc., a home-construction and land-development company in Maryland. He remembers a paper he wrote on urban planning when he was at the University of Maryland, and his professor was Parris Glendening, now governor of Maryland.

"I did a paper on the 'wedges and corridors' method of planning, which was very popular in those days," Mr. Kauffman says. "It could have really done a lot to help us today, if we had only followed through on the plan."

"Wedges and corridors" was a compelling vision. The plan calls for wedges of low-density and undeveloped land dividing corridors of high-density growth. I-270, the Baltimore-Washington Parkway and Route 50 were to be lined with lots of residential and commercial developments, and connector roads would tie them together.

The Metro system was to play a big role, with rail corridors like the Red and Green lines serving areas of the highest density. Building that kind of infrastructure is expensive, but the idea was to make the developments dense enough to justify the investment in mass transit and to keep the green wedges free of any high-density projects.

Today, Mr. Glendening is praised by many planners for his vision: "The goal of smart growth is not no growth or even slow growth," he says. "Rather, the goal is sensible growth that balances our need for jobs and economic development with our desire to save our natural environment."

Unfortunately, the ambitious plans laid out at the University of Maryland a few decades ago haven't quite worked out.

"Back in the 1960s, these plans sounded great, and they really could have been," Mr. Kauffman says. "But some things happened that we didn't foresee, and the plans were only partially implemented."

Perhaps the most significant unforeseen change of the past 40 years was increased traffic. Between 1969 and 1990, the number of trips taken by Americans increased three times faster than the population did, according to the Federal Highway Administration. Add to that an increase of 9 percent in the length of the average trip, and you have a lot more people going a lot more places on road systems that haven't kept pace with usage.

"When I was growing up, our house had one car," Mr. Kauffman says. "Now, many households have two or even three cars. I have four cars at my house now."

There are a lot of reasons why more of us are driving these days. Among the reasons are changes in demographics. More women began working. Divorces increased the number of households.

Another reason was the explosion of high-tech industry, which has transformed the area.

Yet another reason is the amount of driving we do to reach the services we use. Health clubs, megamalls, night schools, theme restaurants and other new attractions draw more of us farther from home than ever.

Even the innovative wedges and corridors plans would have had difficulty accommodating the unexpected increase in traffic these factors produced, but it would have helped.

"Sadly, many of the roads that were a part of the plan were never built," Mr. Kauffman says. "And a lot of the mass transit planned 30 years ago is only being finished today."

The I-270 corridor illustrates the mixed results of smart growth planning without sufficient follow-through. "Decisions were made years ago in Montgomery County, for funding reasons and 'no growth' reasons, that resulted in a lack of funding for road projects," Mr. Campbell says. "While you can't pinpoint this as the sole cause, the shortfall in road capacity in Montgomery County played a role in forcing development to move up I-270."

Now, the I-270 corridor is booming, and the infrastructure doesn't exist to support the demand. Density along I-270 isn't as high as the wedges and corridor plans called for, making it more difficult to support mass transit. And due to environmental objections, the planned Intercounty Connector was never built, even though a recent survey of Montgomery voters found that 64 percent favor construction of a new highway linking I-270 near Gaithersburg with I-95 near Laurel.

Without the release valves of Metrorail and alternate traffic routes, I-270 has become a long traffic jam lined with office buildings and single-family communities.

Commuters who use I-270, I-95, I-66, the Baltimore-Washington Parkway and Route 50 suffer whenever small problems arise, because there are few ways to relieve the pressure.

One night in October, for example, the Woodrow Wilson Bridge was closed due to a tractor-trailer accident in the middle of rush hour. Virginia residents who take I-295 south from the District were forced to turn around just before the bridge, return north on I-295 and travel back through the city on a very slow I-395 to get to Virginia. A half-hour commute became two hours for many, because bridges across the Potomac are too few and too small.

This kind of scenario happens all too often in the Washington area. Almost any event on the main roads out of town even a car pulled over for speeding can cause traffic to seize up.

"The roads are clogged like the arteries of heart-attack victim," Mr. Kauffman says. "This is a very interesting analogy. You see, there is a main artery near the heart called the 'widow artery.' When it gets clogged up in a middle-aged man and he has a heart attack, death is very likely. But when arteries have slowly grown clogged in an older man, the body compensates for the slowdown by increasing the capacity of other arteries and veins. An older man is more likely to survive a heart attack, because his body has been developing alternate traffic routes for years."

Unfortunately, planning has failed to provide the Washington area with the alternate traffic routes that are needed, making everyone more stressed and heightening tensions between developers and communities.

The building and zoning codes enacted by local jurisdictions to battle the congestion have actually contributed to urban sprawl, says Jim Williams, executive vice president of the Northern Virginia Building Industry Association.

"Fairfax County's restrictions are more onerous than what's required for developing open land farther west," he says. "So developers shift their focus to rural areas instead of existing urban centers."

As the developers turn their attention to big open spaces without a lot of rules, the rule makers usually respond quickly.

Up in northwest Montgomery County, there is a 4,000-acre plot of rural land that has become a battleground.

To prevent congestion, the county has zoned those acres for 25-acre residential lots.

"That means only 160 homes can be built on that huge piece of land," Mr. Kauffman says. "Wouldn't make a lot more sense to put 1,000 homes on 500 of those acres, and make the rest open space? You could then justify all the services, mass transit and retail that those residents would demand, and still leave 3,500 acres of untouched green area."

"I understand that folks out there don't want the rural charm to disappear. I feel for them, because no one wants open fields to go away. But the growth has to come somewhere isn't there a balanced way to do it intelligently?"

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide