Let's put more homes on farmland


November 12, 1994|By TOM HORTON

What is it the voters want?

Nationally and around Maryland, large numbers seem to be seeking a boomier economy, less government regulation, fewer taxes.

Also, in recent polls, they want cleaner air and water, less traffic congestion, and better protection of resources like the Chesapeake Bay, wetlands, forests and farmland.

If any of the state's newly elected officials think all the above can go hand in hand, I have some property I'd like to interest them in.

No, it's not the Brooklyn Bridge, and it's not a cynical joke. It's called the Homestead Farm. Its fields of melons, sorghum, corn and vegetables cover close to a square mile near my house, just west of Salisbury.

The farm is fast becoming my last view of open space, on trips to town, amid expanding bedroom development that sprawls away the Nanticoke and Wicomico rivers. But I come not to praise or lTC preserve the Homestead Farm, but to develop it -- and develop it more intensively than the most ambitious developer in these parts would dream.

Environmentally -- economically too -- it seems the right way to go. With help from government, developers and environmentalists, it could become a model for protecting the bay. Readers might be thinking: With friends like him, the bay needs no enemies; but bear with me.

One way or another, Homestead Farm probably will be developed -- and probably should be, lying as it does so close to the growing, regional hub city of the Eastern Shore.

The property long ago was approved for a standard, cookie-cutter bedroom suburb of 400 detached homes on big lots -- reflecting more the need to get something down on paper than actual development plans, the owner says. As in so much of the state, this did not even require an exemption from Wicomico County's "agriculture" zoning, which has nothing to do with preserving agriculture.

Such spread-out patterns of land development are a well-documented threat to the state's future on several counts:

* Economically, it is a horribly inefficient use of land, yielding a fraction of the property tax of denser development; costing far more to service with roads, utilities, schools and emergency services.

* Environmentally, the current rates of sprawl create about double the air and water pollution from commuting and clearing land as does more compact development that was the rule until a few decades ago.

* Sprawl also consumes open space at a fierce rate. A 33 percent population increase by 2020 will mean a 100 percent increase in developed land in Maryland, according to the state's Office of Planning Projects. That means we lose more than a half-million acres, eroding farm production and diminishing the forests and wetlands that filter runoff before it reaches the bay.

But it doesn't have to be. Imagine the Homestead Farm -- and by extension the state -- developed in quite another way.

The farm's 535 acres would be laid out now around parks and village greens, around a school and shops and a main street reminiscent of many of the state's most charming older towns.

Housing -- at least five times the present approved density -- is a mix of apartments, detached houses, retirement living and town homes.

It is a place that encourages walking, not driving; a community, not a bedroom; aesthetic, not an eyesore. It generates more taxes than it costs in services, minimizes pollution and conserves open space.

So why, if it's so great, do developers so seldom do things this way?

Many would if they thought they could. E. S. Adkins and Co., owner of the Homestead Farm, a few years ago had an architect draw up a very impressive plan for innovative, high density development of the place.

Bill Turner of Adkins still says, "We hope it turns out to be a development we can all be proud of." But he is wary, he says, of raising expectations. And for good reason. The deck right now is stacked against developing the way we ought.

Upfront costs of doing it right can be several times higher. Extending municipal water and sewer can't compete, in the short run, with plunking down checkerboard lots on individual septic tanks, even though those systems are a significant source of pollution to ground water flowing into the bay.

More sophisticated design and engineering isn't cheap; also, ironically, there is the prospect of months and years of delay because subdivision and environmental regulations are not flexible enough to easily accommodate innovative development.

And so long as counties zone virtually their entire land surface for residential building lots, it is easier and cheaper to develop outlying parcels, rather than land near existing growth centers.

Feeding into this is the opposition to dense development that often comes from neighbors. Again, it's easier for developers to go with the flow, and sprawl. All this will not change without a unique and concerted effort by some diverse interests.

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