A 'First Step' Designed to Prevent Any More Steps

TOM HORTON

March 11, 1992|By TOM HORTON

Environmentalists, who have made a major issue of the need to keep uncontrolled development from degrading the Chesapeake Bay, are now in the agonizing position of opposing a growth-management bill backed by the Schaefer administration and many legislators.

Critics try to suggest that the environmentalists, who lost a bid for a much stronger bill last year, are unwilling to settle for an important ''first step'' toward reining in the sprawl development widely acknowledged as wasteful of both economic and natural resources.

But the current bill is not a step forward, and 20 years of history shows that similar ''first steps'' consistently have been used to stall any meaningful progress toward managing growth.

Even the Schaefer bill's backers, who include developers, builders, farmers and local governments, acknowledge it is weak stuff, no more than a nod toward combating the sprawl that is projected to gobble five Howard counties-worth of Maryland farms, forests and wetlands by the year 2020.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation estimates effective growth management would stop half that projected destruction of open space, saving nearly 350,000 acres. Such planning does not mean no-growth, or even limiting growth and economic development per se. Rather, it means changing the patterns of that growth.

It means using land-use tools like zoning and subdivision regulations, and placing infrastructure like roads and sewers so as to achieve more compact patterns of living on our land. This drastically reduces pollution of the Bay from clearing and paving, and produces major tax savings by reducing the need to extend utilities, roads, sewer, water, police, schools and other public services in unplanned and scattered fashion.

But the package under consideration does not insure even a first step toward this. It is dominated by feel-good, do-nothing language: ''shall be recommended,'' ''encourage,'' ''serve as a guide.'' It has loopholes -- ''do to the extent practicable'' -- that are wider than the mouth of the Chesapeake.

Glaringly absent are any clear means to enforce compliance with good growth-management principles, or to insure that local zoning is consistent with local growth plans that say where growth should go.

Local control by itself isn't up to the task. The adverse impacts of growth and development, just like more traditional sources of air and water pollution, know no political boundaries. Decades ago it became clear that local jurisdictions, acting independently, could not adequately manage the pollution from all smokestacks and sewer pipes. Similar recognition for growth's impacts is overdue, as a cursory ride through the strip developments and exurban sprawl dotting the Maryland landscape proves.

That brings us to history. Billing the current package as a foundation on which we are likely to build good growth management ignores the tortuous, two-decade exercise Maryland already has gone through, beginning in 1973 when Marvin Mandel was governor.

Now as then, concern with the destructive impacts of sprawl development, and local jurisdictions' unwillingness to manage it, had culminated in a strong and controversial state land-use bill. This was compromised down to much less than environmentalists thought was needed to manage growth; but at least, it seemed at the time, a sound beginning had been made.

It didn't work that way. With no real teeth or accountability provisions, the resultant ''state development plan'' agreed to by the legislature never was done. Areas of ''critical concern'' that local jurisdictions agreed to designate often turned out to be industrial-park sites and future road rights-of-way, rather than natural areas; and powers given the state to intervene in bad land-use decisions by local governments proved largely ineffectual.

Thus for nearly two decades there was an illusion that we were ''doing something'' about sprawl. The existence of a law became the pretext to stall meaningful reform; and this sham was supported by many of the interests currently backing the latest ''first step.''

We at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation fear that history may repeat. We worry that this so-called first step may shut the door once and for all on the much more fundamental reforms that are needed.

The current bill need not even be implemented until 1997, which virtually insures that nothing more will be done until the end of the decade. But, as the recent 2020 Report on population growth and development reported, about 38 percent of new households projected for the next three decades will be set up by 1999.

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