Chicken, egg, sewers, sprawl

Baltimore County: Zoning can manage growth even in areas eligible for public sewerage

October 04, 1999

THE Baltimore County planning commission faces a variant of the chicken-and egg questions: If water and sewer service are extended to rural areas, will dense development unavoidably follow?

That philosophical debate is at the heart of a recent squabble over what is known as the Baltimore Metropolitan District.

The district was created by the Maryland General Assembly back in 1924.

It obligates the city of Baltimore to provide water and sewer service within the prescribed area, which includes most of the lower half of Baltimore County.

Baltimore County planners are now concerned about the district border in the Kingsville and Green Spring Valley areas. It extends beyond another boundary the county created two decades ago as a line in the sand against development called the Urban-Rural Demarcation Line, or URDL.

The incongruity between these two lines on a map has existed for a long time, but only recently has it surfaced as an issue.

It's another example of the effects and pressures of suburban sprawl: When few people were moving to historically rural communities, hypotheticals on a planning map mattered little. But now planners fear that a boundary that allows expansion of public sewer and water service could invite development.

They want to revise the Metropolitan District border in the proposed master plan to coincide with the URDL. That may be too simplistic an approach to a very complex problem.

There's more than promoting Smart Growth at issue here. As planning commission member Ellwood A. Sinsky points out, extension of water and sewer service is also a public health matter.

For example, during the past decade, sewer service has been extended outside the URDL to replace more than 1,400 failed systems that threatened water quality and public health near the Middle and Back rivers.

Would it have made any sense not to do that?

Mr. Sinsky also argues that proper zoning can effectively limit growth even in areas served by public water and sewer. He's right. His theory is demonstrated in Carroll County, where the lack of water and sewer service has done nothing to curtail sprawl.

Shrinking the 75-year-old Metropolitan District would only condemn communities where wells are failing from any possibility of receiving public service. Extension of sewers beyond the URDL, however, should be done only to correct existing problems.

There's a balance that needs to be recognized here. Simply merging the two lines on a map isn't a necessity to better management of growth.

Pub Date: 10/04/99

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