How Useful Is Land Use?

ON THE BAY

July 24, 1993|By TOM HORTON

Great dates in Queen Anne's County land-use planning:

1917: President Wilson announces that the War Department has chosen land near Aberdeen in Harford County over Kent Island in Queen Anne's for a new proving ground.

1951-1952: Completion of the Bay Bridge, from Sandy Point to Kent Island on the Eastern Shore, causes subdivision activity to soar. No time to lose in getting zoning, warns the local Queen Annes Record Observer.

1965: Fourteen years into the boom, the county's first permanent zoning ordinance is passed.

1993: Under the state's first growth law, the county attempts to manage development so the Chesapeake Bay will benefit. Can Queen Anne's do it? See below.

*

Land use, growth management, comprehensive planning: Such flaccid, juiceless words we use for processes that shape the look and feel of the places where we spend our lives.

But in fairness to planners, it takes more than poetry to regulate how 5 million Marylanders live on 6 million acres.

Still, there's worth in how John Gutting, a landscape architect in the county, sees the latest five-year growth plan just being completed in Queen Anne's: "Essentially we are creating a sculpture, for which the county is the physical base. The end result should be pleasurable to look at."

Or consider the vision put forth by Friends for the Future of Queen Anne's County, a diverse and impressive collection of citizen groups that have been working more than a year to make this growth plan a turning point, to ensure: "A green countryside rich with farms and forests, dotted with vibrant towns and rural villages, connected by healthy rivers and creeks . . . also new stores, new jobs, new homes and new schools, well designed highways that join us to big cities, and scenic back roads that connect us to our rural roots."

It's a vision based on the best theories of how to handle population growth without compromising the environment or the economy. Don't try to fight it. Channel it fairly densely into existing population centers. And keep it from sprawling across remaining forest and farmland.

Theory has not been so much the problem as execution, here and around most of Maryland. Despite plans that say otherwise, the zoning underpinning them has given little incentive to build around towns, and little disincentive to develop the countryside.

Slowing sprawl

Thus, in fast-growing Queen Anne's, during the last five-year comprehensive plan, rural areas designated "conservation" and "preservation" got three-quarters of all new subdivision activity and 40 percent of all building permits.

That trend is scarcely unique to Queen Anne's. Across most of Maryland, sprawl development has resulted in a per-capita consumption of open space that in 1990 was more than triple that of 1950. Unchecked, the sprawl will consume the equivalent of fiveHoward Counties in forest and farmland by 2020.

There is a statewide focus on Queen Anne's this year, however, because it is the first to revise its comprehensive plan under the state's new and controversial Growth and Planning Act of 1992.

State 'visions'

The state law is so watered down from a tougher version, rejected by the legislature in 1991, that some environmentalists consider the 1992 measure worse than no law at all because it gives the illusion of improved land use.

Queen Anne's officials championed the weaker law, which leaves broad discretion to local governments, relying on their adherence to seven state "visions" for melding growth and environmental protection.

Examples of these visions, which the county has duly incorporated in the final draft of its 1993 plan: "In rural areas growth is directed to existing population centers," and, "Stewardship of the Chesapeake Bay and the land is a universal ethic."

The county plan is close to going to elected officials for a vote. Public comment is done, and the Friends of the Future feel they were sincerely listened to and that the final draft incorporated many good changes.

But with at least 5,800 new households coming to the county in the next 20 years, and the land use failures documented for the last five-year plan, is enough better? Has a real turning point been reached?

During the Chesapeake Bay's environmental decline, for example, we were always making certifiable progress, but progress that amounted to rowing 3 knots against a 5-knot current.

Potential flaws

Frankly, that's about the kind of progress the state and Queen Anne's have achieved with this new, five-year blueprint for growth.

Analysis of the final draft by the Friends and other closely involved groups, such as the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, points to major flaws:

* Despite the past sprawl development that mocked efforts to keep growth away from rural areas, the plan retains the same 8-acre minimum lot sizes for most of its 200,000 acres of farm and forest.

A 20-acre lot is the bare minimum proven effective at reining in sprawl, the groups say.

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