FUTURE HISTORIANS of the Maryland landscape will note that the last decade or two saw a quiet, but profound shift - a tacit acknowledgement that zoning, as a principal means of keeping the countryside intact, was a major failure.
This occurred to me recently while checking the progress in Congress of something called CARA, aka the Conservation and Reinvestment Act.
CARA has passed the House with bipartisan support and is headed for a critical floor vote in the Senate. It's still unknown to most of the public, but it would create a permanent, billion-dollar land preservation fund, using offshore oil and gas lease revenues. Maryland would get $35 million to $38 million a year.
That's serious greenspace bucks.
But it is also striking to realize how much company CARA's potential contribution has in the arena of preserving land without depending on zoning.
Premier among them is Maryland's Program Open Space, funded from real estate transfer taxes, which pumps more than $60 million a year into acquiring parks, greenways, old-growth forest, bike trails, bogs, wetlands and more. POS and other sources also fund a state farmland preservation program, which doesn't buy land outright, but pays farmers $20 million a year to give up development rights to their properties, insuring it will remain in agriculture.
Then there is Rural Legacy, a state bond program in its third year that has bought 47,000 acres of open space and farms. Its goal is to preserve 250,000 acres of the state in the next 12 years. Maryland also gets about $6 million a year from federal transportation monies that it can spend creatively on land acquisition for scenic easements, greenways, converting old railways to trails and such.
Add to that an increasing number of county acquisition programs; also growing land preservation activity by private groups, such as The Nature Conservancy, the Trust for Public Land and the Conservation Fund. The latter organization recently engineered a spectacular purchase of 58,000 acres of forestland on the Eastern Shore, splitting the $32 million cost with Program Open Space. That acreage represents nearly 1 percent of Maryland's land surface, preserved in a single transaction.
Finally, add the growing activity of state and local land trusts, which obtain voluntary easements from landowners, who trade development rights for tax credits. Trusts in the state have grown from eight in 1988 to more than 43 and have preserved tens of thousands of acres.
The trend is similar nationwide. In 1998, voters in 19 states approved 70 percent of more than 200 initiatives to protect open space, authorizing about $7 billion in bonds and other funding sources. Since then, New Jersey has passed bonds to buy a million acres - half its remaining undeveloped land. Florida approved a 10-year, $3 billion program, and California approved $4 billion (some of it for water quality, as well as land protection).
The latest Chesapeake Bay Agreement calls for Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia to preserve an additional 1.5 million acres of the bay watershed by 2010.
As for zoning - the nation's major regulatory tool since the 1920s - it was, in retrospect, fatally flawed from its inception.
It never included the relatively inflexible boundaries around city and town development that were key to the German model from which it was adapted.
And unlike European zoning, it made a mockery of "agriculture" and "conservation" zones outside the cities. Often these are just 1-to-5 acre building lots anywhere the soil percs for septic tanks. Developers who can prove either a "change" in the neighborhood since the original zoning, or a "mistake" in the zoning process, can usually get their way under U.S. zoning laws.
At the same time, zoning has been used all too effectively to preclude the innovation and high-density development needed to accommodate more people in areas where development is planned, and where expensive roads and sewers have been put to serve them.
Another strike against zoning as a preservation tool - it is done at the county level. The result is that even when one county lays down a restrictive zone, development leapfrogs to the adjoining and usually unprepared county.
You can find counties, such as Baltimore and Montgomery, that have applied such restrictive zoning, for example, 50-acre minimum lots, that it does protect open space. But such places had to trash an awful lot of their natural landscape before they got serious about the remainder. Only in a limited sense are they models.
Protective zoning was applied on a statewide scale to good effect in the Maryland Critical Area Act, which limited development around the edges of the bay and its rivers to an average of one residence per 20 acres. Even here, much of the coastal zone was already approved for building and was grandfathered out of the act's restrictions.
No one would suggest we do away with, or give up on zoning, but we are already putting much of our faith, and dollars, elsewhere to protect the landscape.
To support the CARA legislation, call or write your Maryland senators and urge them to push for passage before Congress adjourns in October.