Sprawl development is economic, aesthetic loser


February 26, 1994|By TOM HORTON

In Baltimore, armed robberies terrorize a pleasant city neighborhood -- one more nudge to the urban flight that has seen the city's population base lose 200,000 residents since 1950.

In Prince George's County, a move to increase urban water and sewer hookups by some $5,000 per house threatens to crush revitalization of areas inside the Capital Beltway.

Both those recent news items clearly signal problems -- which have massive and direct connections to the Chesapeake Bay.

Imagine it this way: Every last acre of forest remaining in Baltimore County, parks, nature centers and all, changed to housing. Or virtually every farm in Carroll County vanished, sown permanently in bedrooms for commuters.

Or imagine Howard County developed literally border to border, the nation's first 100 percent suburb; or a strip of development a mile wide, blazed through the state's remaining countryside all the way from Salisbury to Garrett County.

Such scenarios represent the vast open space consumed in today's suburban sprawl by 200,000 people who once fit into about one-quarter of Baltimore City.

Although we are very little changed in height or weight from Marylanders of half a century ago, each of us, in effect, takes up an average of nearly four times as much open space as in 1950. Though family size has decreased, we live on ever larger lots.

Such development in the next few decades will consume hundreds of thousands of acres of forest, the land use that

produces the cleanest water in our streams, rivers and, ultimately, the bay they all flow into.

Sprawl development is shown by study after study to raise taxes, waste energy and increase pollution. Environmentally, economically and aesthetically, it is a loser.

Too frequently we think of solving our urban problems in social terms -- and the social problems don't press on us much out in the suburbs. But the ultimate environmental recycling opportunity lies not in cans and bottles, but in returning to full use our already-developed lands in cities and towns across the state.

Maryland's population will increase by about 800,000 people in the next 30 years.

Under current sprawl trends this will consume more than 600,000 acres of open space.

That is mind-boggling when you consider that the 4.7 million of us who live here now, during nearly 400 years of development, have consumed 800,000 acres.

Now, imagine the environmental gains if, instead, we could attract 200,000 of that population increase back into Baltimore, and hundreds of thousands more into the urban centers of metropolitan Washington; and the Cumberlands and Cambridges and Hagerstowns of the outlying areas of the state.

Because population and industry are so concentrated in big urban areas such as Baltimore, they are often conceived by the public to be somehow more polluting, across the board, than the suburban and rural areas.

But not when you look at them on a per capita basis.

Consider sewage treatment, which is undergoing major

upgrades in the state's larger plants.

By the year 2000, if not sooner, a Baltimorean's sewage will contribute less than half the nitrogen and less than one-tenth the phosphorus to the bay as that from residents of many Eastern Shore towns.

Both nitrogen and phosphorus are key pollutants, linked to declines in underwater grasses and oxygen in the bay.

As for more rural areas, septic tanks pump at least as much nitrogen, per capita, into the ground water than even an average sewage treatment plant discharges.

Save us billions

In addition, recycling and developing our urban and town centers can save us billions on road construction, cut air pollution and energy use by automobiles, and keep millions of tons of sediment from construction out of waterways.

It is good social policy, good economic policy and good environmental policy -- which makes what is happening in Prince George's County both terribly shortsighted and a test of the state's resolve to turn the corner with suburban sprawl.

The Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC) has proposed to end its policy of uniform hookup charges for water and sewer in Prince George's and Montgomery counties.

Because it is cheaper to bulldoze sewer lines through countryside than to re-do them in redeveloping urban areas, the WSSC reasons, the rates should reflect that.

The agency is threatening this month to implement new rates that carry differentials of $5,000 or more per house in urban settings.

That is simply equitable water and sewer policy, says the WSSC, a bi-county agency, over which the state legislature has some oversight.

Ruinous policy

But it is ruinous policy in any broader sense, argues Parris Glendening, the Prince George's county executive. It would crush his administration's ambitious program to revitalize decaying communities inside the Capital Beltway.

Glendening, who is running for governor, seems to have a better grasp of Maryland's land use dilemma than most politicians.

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