Baltimore is the key to saving the bay

Terry J. Harris & Joan Willey

December 14, 1990|By Terry J. Harris& Joan Willey

EVERY STUDY of the Chesapeake Bay's tragic decline has shown the fundamental link between the use of our land and the state of the bay, which is precisely the reason a robust and vital city of Baltimore is essential for the future of the Chesapeake.

According to Maryland's Office of Planning, the state's population has grown 8.2 percent in the past five years, while land used for development is up 18.5 percent. These five years of construction account for 145,000 acres, a land area equivalent to 2 1/2 times that of Baltimore city.

Meanwhile, the recent census shows the population in the city has dropped. Clearly, Maryland has forgotten the central principle that if we are to slow suburban development to tolerable levels, we must encourage redevelopment in urban areas.

The Governor's Commission on Growth in the Chesapeake Region, a 32-member group chaired by former Maryland Congressman Michael Barnes, was created more than a year ago and was charged with developing a plan to protect the bay under the enormous development pressures forecast for the state. According to Barnes, the commission found the existing trends in development "genuinely frightening." However, the panel has drafted legislation that, if adopted, could have immediate and enormous benefits for the health of the bay.

The Barnes Commission's recommendations, which may have arrived at a most opportune moment, suggest a dramatic change from business as usual. If the draft recommendations were to be adopted without delay, the amount of land needed for the projected long-term population growth would be cut by two-thirds, saving local governments an estimated $49 million yearly in the cost of "infrastructure" -- the roads, sewers and other things needed to serve the new population. And significantly, the most sensitive areas for the health of the bay and Maryland's natural environment would be immediately and permanently protected.

The essence of the commission's draft is that future development should be directed to suitable "growth areas" specifically designated by local jurisdictions. Meanwhile, development in "rural and resource areas," also identified by local jurisdictions, would be slowed. By concentrating development into specific growth areas rather than sprinkling it across the countryside, the jurisdictions would realize enormous savings in the cost of roads and other new infrastructure. Clearly, however, the greatest savings would be realized if growth could be directed to where adequate infrastructure already exists -- namely, Baltimore city.

The commission finds explicitly: "The revitalization and redevelopment of Maryland's older, declining, developed areas

is critical to Maryland's future. The full and effective use of developed areas will conserve land, promote an improved quality of urban life and relieve growth pressures in resource areas."

What this means is that Baltimore needs to be more attractive and much more competitive for new residents and businesses. So ultimately, lower property tax rates, better schools and safer streets in Baltimore are environmental issues, too.

Already, Maryland has lost half of its original forested land and half of its original wetlands. In fact, the Office of Planning says Maryland's forests are disappearing at a rate of more than 14,000 acres a year, and farmland is vanishing even faster. With current development patterns, planners predict 626,000 more acres will need to be developed to handle the 1 million more Maryland residents expected in the next 30 years. It isn't difficult to conclude that growth on this scale is a very serious threat to the environment.

Plainly, if the Chesapeake Bay is to survive the population growth projected for the region, sprawling patterns of growth and development in Maryland must be changed. The Barnes Commission's thoughtful draft offers a sensible alternative, and the city of Baltimore is the key.

Terry J. Harris is the legislative coordinator for the Sierra Club's Baltimore Group. Joan Willey is chair of the Citizens' Campaign for the Environment, an umbrella organization that includes the major environmental groups in Maryland. The only public hearing VTC on the commission recommendations is tomorrow from 10 to 4 in the Legislative Services hearing room in Annapolis.

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