Sprawl defies good intentions

ON THE BAY

Visions: Smart Growth is a breakthrough concept for the state, but most counties aren't yet serious about preserving rural land.

November 09, 2001|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

ALMOST A DECADE ago, elected officials, developers and representatives of agriculture gathered from across Maryland to celebrate a new and already bankrupt law to preserve the state's rural landscape.

Lightning should have scorched their pen hands as they stood in line in the State House to sign a large poster pledging seven "visions for a better Maryland."

They were good visions. Following them would have helped revitalize towns and cities, protect the Chesapeake Bay, save taxpayers billions and preserve Maryland's rural heritage.

But many of the signers were happy to be at Gov. William Donald Schaefer's incongruous party only because of the law's unwritten eighth vision: No county really had to abide by any of the other seven.

Schaefer's attempt to pass an anti-sprawl bill with teeth the year before had failed, a victim of the same coalition of local governments, developer-builders and farm groups that have traditionally fought good land-use policies.

Five years would pass before the timetable for carrying out the "visions" expired in failure. During each of those years, Maryland lost to development about 13,000 acres, about 20 square miles of farm and forest.

In 1997 came Maryland's next attempt to do better with Gov. Parris N. Glendening's Smart Growth program, aimed at channeling growth away from rural areas and into existing population centers.

Smart Growth was well-conceived, a true environmental breakthrough, and the governor and state have become nationally respected for it.

But it was never more than a half-measure, relying on state spending incentives and rural land-preservation funds to retarget growth.

The counties, which retained the critical control over planning and zoning, could have joined in the spirit of things, just as they could have followed the old "seven visions."

But, for the most part they haven't, according to an analysis of sprawl in the Baltimore region published recently by two environmental and civic groups, 1000 Friends of Maryland and the Baltimore Regional Partnership.

The analysis shows that most of the five metro counties have a vision for rural land use - a countryside that in coming decades will be pocked with developments, scattered like pellets fired from a shotgun.

You'll only see this vision on a map from the Baltimore Regional Partnership or 1000 Friends (call 410-385-2910 or visit their Web sites at www.friendsofmd.org/news.htm or www.balto-region-partners.org/sprawl.htm).

You won't see it on the counties' own master-plan maps, which show big green areas labeled "rural conservation," "agriculture" and the like.

Such designations are mostly shams because of the weak underlying zoning, allowing them to be carved easily into subdivisions and individual home lots.

Smart Growth tries to counter these local inadequacies. It requires counties to designate "priority funding areas" - land in and around existing communities where growth can make efficient use of land, roads, sewers and other costly infrastructure.

Only within these "priority" areas will the state give counties money for new schools, roads and other facilities required to serve growth.

It's a good concept, but the counties seem to be betting that they can get around it when push comes to shove.

Baltimore County alone shows a positive trend. Its development outside priority funding areas is projected to drop to just 9 percent of the county total in the next two decades, down from 15 percent in the last decade.

Such progress is the result of tough countryside zoning that restricts lots to a minimum of 20 to 50 acres; decades of yeoman work by an influential private planning organization, the Valleys Planning Council; and the foresight of its farming community (a farmer and county planning commission member, Wayne McGinnis, has led the charge for tougher zoning).

Unfortunately, all this is almost completely confined to Baltimore County, which still stands to lose about 10 square miles of rural land by 2020.

Howard County's rural zoning, by contrast, allows a laughable minimum lot size of 4 acres. Of all the metro counties, Howard is the best bet to lose virtually all of its rural lands, except what is preserved by purchase or by easement - and even preserved farms may become unworkable within a developed countryside.

Carroll County, still 55 percent agricultural, seems hellbent on becoming the next Howard. An astounding 58 percent of its development in the next 20 years is projected for outside its priority funding areas, up from 39 percent during the last decade.

Harford County is also headed the wrong way, with development outside priority areas projected to increase to 25 percent from 17 percent. Its agricultural zoning is weak, allowing 8-acre lots.

Anne Arundel's outside-priority-area development is also headed up, to 30 percent from 21 percent - this even with priority areas encompassing nearly 40 percent of the county.

Expect other counties to be equally bad when they are analyzed soon. A decade after the hoax of the "seven visions," the counties continue to outrageously squander our most nonrenewable of resources, the land.

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