The Schaefer administration's latest plan for coming to grips with population and development sprawl merits the support of those who care about this state's environment and the region's quality of life. It is a modest proposal, to be sure, but it is a sound beginning in the fight for tougher curbs on uncontrolled growth.
We think environmental activists are mistaken in opposing this measure. The overwhelming defeat last year of sweeping land-use controls indicates the public is not yet ready for that sort of strong statewide mandate. Still, ways must be found to get counties to think more seriously about the ramifications of local development decisions. That's the rationale behind the Schaefer bill.
True, the measure does not give the state a role in local land-use decisions. It does, though, force each locality to designate "sensitive area elements" (stream buffers, flood plains, steep slopes); bring zoning and land-use regulations into conformance with the county's master plan, and align these plans with statewide principles to protect the bay and conserve resources.
The key to this approach is cooperation. County and municipal governments are backing this bill, as are homebuilders, bankers and farmers because it gives them a say in land-use decisions. Yet by agreeing to the bill, these groups are throwing their support behind the concept of growth management to preserve the bay and the state's environment.
The state need not be a policeman to influence local land-use decisions. A cooperative approach is preferable. Environmental purists are deluding themselves if they think their case will be stronger if this bill is defeated. They claim the bill is so weak it is meaningless. They also fear that this legislation will be used by pro-development forces to blunt stronger growth-control measures in the future. They underestimate the potential impact of the bill.
We have long favored a growth management approach that comes to grips with the population sprawl threatening the Chesapeake watershed. In a mere five-year span, 1985-1990, developers in Maryland gobbled up 145,00 acres -- the equivalent of Howard County being paved border-to-border with new homes, offices and shops. By the year 2020, another 625,000 acres of farms and forests could disappear unless we learn to manage this growth sensibly.
The Schaefer administration bill begins this process. It requires an on-going dialogue between the localities and the state over growth management. The more discussion there is about unrestrained growth, the greater the chance that a consensus will emerge on funneling new development into areas where infrastructure already exists. Now is the time to start that crucial dialogue.