Time to be smart about growth Deadline: Marylanders must let their voices be heard or the state's best hope for curbing rampant development could die in the legislature.

On the Bay

March 14, 1997|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

One of the great issues facing Maryland today is our rapidly diminishing land reserves. Orderly and balanced growth are no longer desirable goals, they are essential requirements if Maryland is to remain fit for human habitation.

Gov. Marvin Mandel, 1973

ALMOST A quarter century later, those goals still mock us, even as we pay growing environmental, economic and social costs from developing the countryside while draining the towns and cities and rural villages.

It's time to say, "Enough."

Say it by calling Ronald A. Guns and Casper R. Taylor Jr., respectively, the chairman of the House Environmental Matters Committee and the speaker of the House of Delegates.

Because here's what it's coming down to in the last few weeks of this General Assembly session:

Both leaders appear willing and able to sabotage the best chance in modern times to inject sanity into development by seeing that the House rejects Gov. Parris N. Glendening's Smart Growth legislation.

They seem unconcerned about continuing the waste of open spaces; the spiraling increase in property taxes, the traffic congestion and the outright uglification of Maryland.

Their stance represents the same three interests that for years have frustrated attempts to legislate growth for the common good: First are the associations of Realtors, developers and homebuilders, whose avarice, while deplorable, is at least somewhat expected.

Odder is the Maryland Farm Bureau, which deserves a barn-sized medal for hypocrisy because the trends the group wants to perpetuate are swallowing farms by the hundreds of thousands of acres.

Finally, there is the Maryland Association of Counties (MACO). Its members have proven for decades their inability to stand up to the two preceding groups in enforcing local master plans to guide growth.

With all the dust such opponents raise about "state control" and "private property rights" and the "American Dream" of 5 acres in the country, it is vital to understand this about the Smart Growth bill:

It does not tell anyone what can or cannot be done with land.

If it passes, developers and builders can continue petitioning every county for the "best" zoning money can buy.

Farmers can sell off the back 40 for hazardous waste dumps and RV parks or whatever local land use permits. They can even keep spouting off about what stewards of the land they are.

And the counties can, if their citizens will tolerate it, carve the whole state into 5-acre lots. If all 5 million Marylanders got one, we'd need to annex 20 million acres in Pennsylvania.

What the bill does do, and the real reason it is so fiercely opposed, is that it eliminates a big, fat taxpayer subsidy to allow private profit from extraordinarily wasteful patterns of development.

It would finally focus state dollars for sewers, roads, housing, job creation and other economic development into places where county and state planners agree it makes economic and environmental sense to grow.

Ending the current subsidies to sprawl is a very big deal.

Compared with compact growth (and we're talking about Columbia here, not tenement high-rises), sprawl costs billions more every few decades in roads, utilities, ambulance, fire and school services.

Howard County, for example, sprawled through the 1980s and thought it was getting rich. Now it's raising taxes and charging youth leagues to play on its baseball fields.

A new "American Dream" home there has to sell for $300,000 before it brings the county more in taxes than it costs in services.

In the next 25 years, another million people are expected in Maryland. They will, if growth patterns don't change, consume half a million acres of farms and forests statewide -- and will develop more of central Maryland in a couple of decades than in the previous three centuries.

Sprawl means more driving and more air pollution. It also means more septic tanks, one of the greatest unregulated polluters of Chesapeake Bay (septic systems weren't meant to control nitrogen, recently recognized as the key bay pollutant).

The bottom line: Sprawl is a big net loser for the public. There is no reason to continue subsidizing it to benefit private homebuilders, developers and landholders who want to cash out and retire.

As for the dream of the big country lot, remember many American Dreams, like hunting and fishing and hiking and solitude -- are dependent on a landscape not perpetually being fragmented and paved.

The Smart Growth bill's backers think it has broad enough support to pass if it is not bottled up or crippled in committee. It is part of a bill package that includes bond money, tax credits and other tools to direct growth and preserve farms and open space.

These seem more likely to pass; but without legislation that sets a saner pattern for development statewide, the rest amounts to preserving islands, while ignoring a rising sea level.

No one opposed to Smart Growth offers an alternative; unless you count sending the bill to summer study, a blatant ruse.

We know what needs doing now. Nearly every county plan and a state law already spell out, in toothless concept, what Smart Growth would do.

More than two decades of failure is enough.

Call Taylor at 410-841-3800. Call Guns at 410-841-3534.

Tell them you are tired of subsidizing pollution, the flight from towns and cities, and the ruin of the Maryland countryside.

Pub Date: 3/14/97

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