Photo by mseery on Flickr.

Opponents of smart growth often claim that the regulations and infrastructure investments necessary to support compact, walkable, and transit-oriented development are somehow a big government intrusion upon the free market. That’s a false dilemma. The fact is, all development rights depend on big government.

A recent white paper from the conservative Heritage Foundation warns that smart growth policies “impede development and economic growth,” “undermine individual choice,” “discriminate against lower-income Americans,” and force people to “give up their cars in favor of subways, trolleys, buses, and bicycles.” Egads!

They’re not alone. Heavily Democratic Prince George’s County can sometimes be as resistant to the big government implications of smart growth as the Tea Party. Last week’s post and discussion about Prince George’s lawmakers who are “too Arlington” illustrates the point.

Property laws inherently constrain individual liberty

Dramatics aside, the Heritage Foundation isn’t all wrong. It’s true that smart growth regulations infringe on the market. But that’s true of all development regulations—and of property rights themselves. By design, all property regulations constrain individuals’ freedom of choice to decide how to acquire and use property.

It’s also true that pushing one form of development over another infringes on the market in a different and greater way than simply guaranteeing property ownership. But this too is a necessary evil of all development regulations.

It is a quintessential local government responsibility to effectively use zoning and land use authority to direct development where it needs to go —and, conversely, to prohibit development where it doesn’t need to go. The same zoning tools that are used by smart growth advocates to focus dense development around transit are used by suburban developers to build subdivisions of peaceful single-family homes.

Without zoning laws, suburban residential subdivisions would not be protected from intrusion by smelly factories, shadow-casting skyscrapers, and loud night clubs. If the government tried to take away those zoning rules protecting suburban home values, there would be a public revolt.

Similarly, zoning laws and land use controls are necessary to shape development and settlement patterns in a responsible way, both on a local and regional scale. This is particularly true in a county with an expansive land area, like Prince George’s County. Without appropriate land use controls, developments could pop up on virtually any greenfield across the vast 500 square mile land area of the county.

But even that type of scattered development depends on big government. You can’t build one of those suburban subdivisions—or even one of those fancy new mixed-use “town centers” in the center of nowhere—unless the government blesses, builds, and maintains the roads, schools, sewers, and utilities to serve it.

Even if a private developer fronts money to pay for the infrastructure in and around the development, it’s impossible to connect any of it to the larger grid without government help. And after all that new infrastructure supporting scattered development is built, guess who has to maintain it? That’s right: big government. And who pays for all of that? That’s right: “We the People” do.

Meanwhile, smart growth requires a lot less government infrastructure than sprawl. It also results in huge savings to taxpayers. By making communities walkable and bikeable, and locating them close to mass transit, smart growth reduces commutes, conserves important environmental resources, and facilitates more healthy lifestyles.  And yes, as with suburban sprawl, smart growth also requires big government.

Whether the Heritage Foundation and the Tea Party care to admit it or not, it’s always been the case that individual property owners can only use property in accordance with the regulations set by the government.  The right and responsibility to determine how land is used belongs to the government, for the benefit of the people as a whole, and it always has. That’s necessary for modern civilization.

So, since it’s big government socialism no matter what, we should dispense with the histrionics and plan for what we want. And if we want smart growth, then we need the government support to do it correctly.

Woodmore Towne Centre: a case study of ineffective TOD

Woodmore Towne Centre. Photo from Petrie-Ross.

Prince George’s County’s approach to the development of Woodmore Towne Centre in Glenarden illustrates the problem with a laissez-faire approach to TOD.

In 2005, Petrie-Ross Ventures proposed a massive 4 million square foot mixed-use development on a 245-acre vacant woodland just outside the Capital Beltway, at its northeastern intersection with Maryland Route 202. Best Buy, Costco, Wegmans, and other automobile-oriented big box stores were to be the anchors.

The Woodmore site was upzoned from a rural-residential to a mixed-use transportation-oriented zone in 1998, even though it was outside the Beltway and more than a mile away from any existing or planned Metro station. 

Meanwhile, multiple nearby sites with better infrastructure connections were left underused. Right across the Beltway from the Woodmore site, the 145-acre Landover Mall site stood shuttered and in need of redevelopment. Additionally, virtually all the nearby Metro stations were undeveloped or significantly underdeveloped.

Woodmore’s planned big boxes could have easily been accommodated at the Landover Mall site. Likewise, much of the lower-density residential uses planned for Woodmore could have been placed at the mall site—thus transforming it into a more compact, greener retrofitted mixed-use development inside the Beltway.

Much of the higher density residential, commercial, and office uses planned for Woodmore could have gone to the nearby Metro stations at Largo, Landover, Cheverly, and New Carrollton.

But instead of focusing the county’s efforts on developing those Metro stations and redeveloping blighted sites like Landover Mall, Prince George’s officials used their zoning power to upzone rural land and make Woodmore Towne Center possible. And in so doing, the county had to build major new roads, Beltway overpass and interchange improvements, and other expensive public infrastructure.

Had Prince George’s taken its smart growth policies seriously, it never would have used its big government authority to rezone Woodmore’s rural property for intense development. Instead, the county would have used its zoning and land use authority, along with its substantial economic development resources, to aggressively promote, incentivize, and steer that same level of development towards better locations.

In the case of Woodmore Towne Center, the county’s lackadaisical approach to smart growth has left it saddled with the still-vacant Landover Mall site, many still-vacant Metro stations, and 245 acres of lost woodlands that will likely never be recovered. And the county has assumed the responsibility for maintaining millions of dollars worth of new and unnecessary roads, sewers, and utilities.

Prince George’s leaders are already embracing the big government mentality that’s necessary for any urban or suburban development. But if they’re truly interested in enhancing the county’s livability and landing higher quality jobs and retail, they will need to wake up and start using their big government powers to facilitate smart growth instead of sprawl. As the old familiar Proverb says, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” (Prov. 29:18)

Bradley Heard is an attorney and citizen activist who resides in the Capitol Heights area of Prince George’s County. A native of Virginia Beach and former longtime Atlanta resident, Brad hopes to encourage high-quality, walkable and bikeable development in the inner Beltway region of Prince George’s County.