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Representatives from the International City/County Management Association (ICMA) and the Environmental Protection Agency recently presented the results of a study, “Putting Smart Growth to Work in Rural Communities”, at the National Building Museum. As we look towards modifications to our zoning laws, it may be useful to summarize some of their findings.

Smart Growth Goals

  1. Economic support of working lands and conservation areas;
  2. Investing in assets to make rural towns thrive; and
  3. Creating new stable, sustainable neighborhoods and communities.

Defining “Rural”

Simply put, USDA defines rural by what it isn’t – rural areas are not “metropolitan counties”. This course-grain approach, of course, doesn’t help define the differences between and within Montgomery County’s more urban corridors and nodes, its residential suburbs, and it’s Agricultural Reserve.

A better way to think about the nature of rural areas is based on economic, geographic, and design characteristics:

  • Gateway communities – areas adjacent to “high-amenity” recreational areas (coastlines, national parks, etc.);
  • Resource-dependent communities – areas dependent on industries such as farming, mining, timbering, etc.;
  • Edge communities – areas at the fringes of metropolitan areas;
  • Traditional Main Street communities – small towns and villages with identifiable, often historic, centers; and
  • Second home and retirement communities – areas the provide housing and services for people looking for rest, relaxation, and recreation/service amenities.

Different areas of Montgomery County display many of the qualities of each these rural typologies. Being next to the nation’s capital, with its numerous museums, memorials, and parks, the County acts as a gateway community for many tourists. With an active farming and horse community, the Agricultural Reserve and other rural-zoned areas share characteristics of resource-dependent communities. Scattered around the major road networks and throughout the rural areas of the County, aspects of the edge, main street, and second home/retirement communities are prevalent.

Issues Facing Rural Communities

Since we share many of the aspects of different types of rural communities, it is important to note the trends facing these areas:

  • Decreasing numbers of farmers and farms;
  • Decreasing natural and working lands;
  • Increasing growth at metropolitan edges;
  • Decreasing population;
  • Decreasing access to jobs and services;
  • Few transportation options; and
  • Little planning staff/resource capacity.

The rural areas of Montgomery County are affected by all of these trends to greater or lesser degrees.

Smart Growth Opportunities/Benefits

To address these issues, the ICMA report lays out 10 principles from the Smart Growth Network that any policy should promote:

  1. Mix land uses;
  2. Take advantage of compact design;
  3. Create a range of housing opportunities and choices;
  4. Create walkable communities;
  5. Foster distinctive, attractive communities with a strong sense of place;
  6. Preserve open space farmland, natural beauty, and critical environmental areas;
  7. Strengthen and direct development toward existing communities;
  8. Provide a variety of transportation options;
  9. Make development decision predictable, fair, and cost-effective;
  10. Encourage community and stakeholder collaboration in development decisions.

The second part of this synopsis will summarize how these principles can be used to support the three smart growth goals.