Can't we invent something better than zoning?

September 15, 1996|By Elise Armacost

ONCE UPON A TIME in Maryland, rural villages sprang up naturally in logical places -- at crossroads, near railroad stations, grist mills and other agricultural enterprises. No one minded. No one considered such development a blight, even though it mixed houses with stores, shops and other businesses in a way that late-20th-century planners and community associations would consider heretical.

Brooks and Rockel's ''History of Baltimore County'' notes that in 1879 the rural village of Sweet Air, a typical hamlet, had 10 artisans, two merchants, a miller and a physician. Residents ''boasted'' of such a commercial potpourri, the historians say, they didn't complain about it.

Today, we love little old villages like Butler, Uniontown and Galesville. More people want to experience their quaintness and character than such towns can possibly hold, which is why developments are cropping up all around many of them. Developers know that capitalizing on a small-town atmosphere pays off.

So why aren't they building new ones? Why has rural development become synonymous with sprawl?

Reducing density

That fact is the driving force behind the proposed downzoning of 12,000 acres in northern Baltimore County, the most important issue in the quadrennial rezoning process now nearing completion. Nearly 1,000 landowners are slated to have all or part of their property changed from one house per 5 acres to one house per 50 acres. Some are upset about the potential impact on property values.

From a public-policy standpoint -- which is how planners and elected leaders must view rezoning -- downzoning makes sense. One house per five acres is sprawl waiting to happen in a region where the county historically has discouraged development and encouraged preservation of agriculture and a pastoral landscape. Moreover, the county simply cannot afford to have houses -- and subsequently the demand for expensive schools, roads and other services -- built all over the rural north.

So next month Third District Councilman T. Bryan McIntire and his colleagues have no reason not to downzone these 12,000 acres. More than that, they have no choice, not if they want to live by the philosophy that the north should be preserved.

They have no choice because Baltimore County, like many other jurisdictions, has failed to come up with solutions other than zoning to protect rural areas -- innovative solutions that might achieve this goal with less impact on landowners and with public benefits downzoning alone doesn't provide.

''Pitiful'' -- and ineffective

dTC Right now, says Baltimore County Planning Director Arnold F. ''Pat'' Keller, ''We have to resort to stuff like this [downzoning] to make a difference. That's pitiful. And even then we don't achieve what we want to achieve.''

In a provocative article in the Atlantic Monthly, James Howard Kunstler, a critic of American suburban development, argues for getting rid of zoning altogether because governments have become slaves to codes that define development in terms of sprawl: wide streets, land-hogging lots, homogeneous design, segregation of residential neighborhoods from even innocuous commercial uses.

While it's doubtful that governments will be willing to risk the anarchy that throwing out the zoning code could bring, Mr. Kunstler's basic point -- that we must progress beyond zoning as it exists -- is on the mark.

A movement toward ''neo-traditional'' neighborhoods very slowly seems to be gaining converts in suburban areas, but strategies for rural development are non-existent. Even if Baltimore County downzones the 12,000, some 20,000 rural acres still will be zoned for one house every five acres. That's a lot of houses that, under current rules, will pop up willy-nilly here and there.

''It's madness,'' Mr. Keller says. ''We need to stop thinking in terms of zoning and regulations. We need to think about a rural strategy.''

What might that include? A system for transferring rural landowners' development rights to areas where growth makes sense, for starters. A few counties already have such a system. Plenty of builders want more density than regulations allow. Instead of giving it to them, why not make them buy it from landowners up north?

The strategy must also include a vision for rural development. Some homes will continue to be built in the country, no matter what. Even in Worthington Valley, protected by one house per 50 acres, loopholes allow some 65 houses. Instead of letting them pop up at random, why not create a ''village'' zoning that allows construction of genuine hamlets, with a grocery, an office or two, perhaps a church and a park?

Choose appropriate locations, such as a crossroads. Lobby landowners to exercise their development rights there instead of in the middle of nowhere. The unorthodox notion of community well and septic systems would have to be explored; public services shouldn't be extended to rural areas because they facilitate development, and houses would be too close for individual well and septic systems.

Such hurdles are not insignificant. But forward-thinking planners, preservationists and developers say they can be overcome. This is the dawn of the 21st century, when human beings have discovered how to do things once thought impossible. We ought to be able to figure out how to build a little town.

Elise Armacost writes editorials for The Sun.

Pub Date: 9/15/96

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