Population Growth a Question for Chesapeake Bay, Too

August 14, 1994|By Timothy B. Wheeler

Africans and Asians are not the only ones who must worry about the limits to population growth. The same concern looms among Marylanders and others who care about restoring the Chesapeake Bay.

About 15 million people live on the 64,000 square miles of land that drain into the bay, which includes almost all of Maryland, major portions of Pennsylvania and Virginia and even chunks of New York and West Virginia.

Within the next 25 years, and quite likely sooner, planners project the population of the bay watershed will grow by at least another 2.6 million people.

Even more important than the number of people is where and how they choose their homes. Those who have settled lately in Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania and the rest of the bay region are using nearly four times as much land to build their houses as did newcomers of 40 years ago, according to planners.

If current trends continue, the amount of open land that is developed in the next 25 years to accommodate those 2.6 million people will exceed all the land that was cleared between 1608 -- when English colonists first arrived in the bay -- and the 1950s, when the bay population boom began, according to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

Such suburban sprawl "causes all sorts of havoc," says Lee Epstein, land-use expert for the Annapolis-based environmental group. People living farther apart drive more, he notes, and increase the amount of polluted storm water running off streets and parking lots into streams, rivers and ultimately, the bay.

"Unless we change our habits -- which includes the way we use our land and the way we travel -- the bay faces a sobering future," Mr. Epstein says.

State and federal officials working to restore the bay acknowledged the problem in 1989, and Maryland and Virginia have adopted laws intended to try to "manage" growth, to direct development away from shorelines and other environmentally sensitive areas.

Maryland's 10-year-old Critical Area law, which seeks to protect the bay by restricting waterfront development, has been fairly effective, Mr. Epstein said, but it covers only a small fraction of the land that drains into the bay. A statewide growth management law enacted two years ago has produced only "modest change" so far, he said, in large part because the law does not specifically mandate any changes in zoning and land-use practices in Maryland counties and municipalities. Concerns about infringing on landowners' rights to use and develop their property also may be discouraging some local officials.

But Peter H. Kostmayer, mid-Atlantic regional administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, thinks it's high time state and local officials stopped dancing around the issue of whether there is a limit to the number of people who can live near the bay.

"They talk about regulating the impacts of growth, without actually regulating growth," said Mr. Kostmayer, whose office in Philadelphia oversees federal environmental programs in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia.

"If you take a county like Calvert and fill it up with people, there's no way you can manage it," he added. "It seems to me there are areas that are going to have to be off limits. . . . Everybody can't live on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, and you have to acknowledge it."

As the bay's growing population and sprawling development undermine efforts to curb pollution from sewage plants, industry, farming and construction, Mr. Kostmayer is concerned. "I think it's going to be the biggest battle in the Chesapeake Bay in the next couple of years," he predicted.

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