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Making Space

Student Project That Balances Housing Need With Conservation Wins Planning Award

By Maggie Haslam

Farmland scene

Photo by iStock

A group of UMD students worked with Harford County to devise a framework for sustainable, strategic housing growth without jeopardizing forests, farms and key natural resources.

In September, the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments released a sobering statistic: The region will require an additional 320,000 new housing units in the next decade to meet the ballooning demand. But finding places to build—without jeopardizing forests, farms and key natural resources—is a central, and sensitive, challenge. 

Over the past year, a group of University of Maryland students worked with Harford County in northern Maryland, a region where rural character must reconcile with the need for new housing, to devise a framework for sustainable, strategic growth. Their final report was recognized by the Maryland chapter of the American Planning Association (APA) this week for most outstanding student project of 2019.  

Conducted as part of the university’s Partnership for Action Learning in Sustainability (PALS) program, the project included 106 students from the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law in Baltimore, UMD’s A. James Clark School of Engineering, the landscape architecture program and the urban studies and planning program (URSP). It culminated in a comprehensive strategic plan for selective, responsible development that may serve as a prototype for other counties in the region.    

“The quality of the student’s work was very impressive,” said Harford County Director of Planning and Zoning Brad Killian. “The analysis, the methodology and research were extremely thorough and well done. The students showed a high level of dedication and professionalism in working not just with our staff, but with stakeholders across the county.” 

Central to the project was the need to address a commonly used development control established 40 years ago to prevent urban creep and protect rural and natural assets. While a few areas of the country have updated these urban growth boundaries, known in Harford as the “development envelope,” that is not the case for Maryland. At its current growth rate, Harford County can only accommodate housing demand for another 14 years, according to the report.

“Maryland counties aren’t talking about expanding these boundaries, which haven’t budged since the late 1970s,” explained Research Professor of Urban Studies and Planning Uri Avin, who led the project. “Meanwhile, populations continue to grow. Politically, socially and economically, it’s a sensitive area, and one we wanted to approach in a thoughtful, holistic way.” 

Fall 2018 coursework in the law and engineering schools and the landscape architecture program zeroed in on legal, environmental and infrastructure issues affecting the Creswell area, 13,000 rural acres just outside Harford County’s development envelope. The resulting reports relied on extensive mapping, analysis and modeling of regional and local conditions by urban planning students last spring to formulate several possible scenarios for new housing outside the development envelope. Stopping growth in Creswell, the report said, would not prevent traffic congestion and stress on area schools and emergency services, and would eventually compromise the area’s cherished rural features.

While the county was focused on five goals—conserve farming, protect the environment, preserve rural character, minimize traffic impacts and maintain adequate infrastructure—the team added two more: provide additional housing and ensure positive fiscal impact. 

The project team delved into the varying perspectives of the farming community, preservationists, developers and government agencies to balance stakeholders’ priorities, apprehensions and conflicting goals. Rural character analysis helped the students identify key viewsheds, scenic roads and historical settings that, if altered, would impact residents’ sense of identity and place. 

“It was scary for people, so we worked very hard to keep these people in mind and to anticipate public reaction,” said Kari Nye, a URSP graduate student. “What makes this project unique is the holistic execution—not only proving its feasibility but also its reception. How will this be perceived, embraced (or not) by the people in the county?” 

Students tested five different growth scenarios, but only one proved worthy of further study: the selective transfer of development rights, a market-based plan that allows the county to develop more densely in some areas while preserving and protecting more environmentally sensitive areas and features. The framework estimates an additional 8,000–20,000 new homes for the county. 

“We were very proud of the outcome,” said Nye. “Here’s a feasible way to preserve as much working farmland as possible while providing the needed growth for the region.”

The APA awards committee noted the project’s collaborative nature, and for providing options for other Maryland jurisdictions facing similar challenges.

“The students yielded a pattern that we think is a viable idea for other counties,” said Avin. “Creating housing in a sustainable and responsible way will continue to be a challenge throughout the state.” 

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