The developers are winning - fish, Maryland are losing

April 17, 2005|By DAN RODRICKS

I BUMPED into Richard Borneman, a professional fishing guide from Havre de Grace, on the banks of Deer Creek in Harford County, which is where some of us go to fish for the shad -- once plentiful, once decimated -- that swim again each spring in huge schools from the ocean through the Chesapeake, up the Susquehanna River and into their natal streams.

The air temperature had dipped overnight, so the shad hadn't started biting yet -- as good an excuse as any, I guess. About 7:30 a.m., Borneman packed away his fly rod to leave for his "other job."

An avid angler and advocate for smart policy to protect natural resources, Borneman described his other job with irony: "Installing a rail on a staircase in some $800,000 house; last year it was a farm, this year it's all houses."

There's a lot of that going around, and if you measure quality of life in Maryland the way guys like Borneman do -- the clarity of water in the bay, the size and healthful appearance of fish, the number of birds you see and hear -- then you get distressed about development in rural areas, or you tend to see bad where others see nothing but good, or you just live with the ironies. Some measure the progress of life by the number of building permits issued in a given year; others look at that with alarm.

Though Maryland and Smart Growth became synonymous in the last decade, the developers are still winning. The environment, in both aesthetic and scientific terms, is still losing. The latest census data show that suburbia continues to sprawl across Maryland, deeper into what had been open space in rural areas. The fastest-growing counties last year were Cecil and Calvert, according to population estimates released Thursday.

The same day, a national environmental group, American Rivers, called the Susquehanna River, the great source of fresh water for the Chesapeake Bay, the "most endangered" in America. Along its path from Cooperstown, N.Y., through Pennsylvania and into Maryland, the Susquehanna picks up massive and debilitating amounts of farm fertilizer, lawn fertilizer, sewage and mud, and it brings tons of oxygen-depleting nutrients into the bay every day. Some parts of Maryland waterways are considered so bad that the state Department of the Environment proposed classifying them as too polluted to bother cleaning up at government expense.

That's a kind of end-game policy, an admission, perhaps more practical than we like to admit, that we can't reverse two centuries of ruinous policies and practices of regional and local governments, industry and people.

Good for the shad they are only in these waters for a short run each spring.

Sigh.

This is such a massive problem, related to population growth, capitalism, the forces of tradition and personal freedom, prejudice and greed. Population continues to grow and to spread across the countryside, as it has since the 1940s, away from cities. Apparently, the trend back to city life still doesn't compete with the trend toward tract housing in the suburbs and exurbs, even as gasoline prices climb toward $3 a gallon. And, in rural areas, just about any development is considered good development, even if the development changes the nature of the area it supposedly enhances.

For instance, the people who run Somerset County, with a population of about 26,000, seem to think it's a good idea that Wal-Mart build a 450,000- square-foot distribution center that might eventually employ 1,000 people.

Wal-Mart was awarded a portion of Somerset County's Chesapeake Bay Critical Area growth allocation so that it could build the sprawling facility on agricultural land along a creek, according to the Daily Times in Salisbury. In January, the Somerset County commissioners signed a $1.3 million Community Development Block grant application to help Wal-Mart develop the land.

But, of course, despite that bit of generosity, Wal-Mart is rethinking this project because of what happened in the 2005 session of the Maryland General Assembly.

The legislature passed a law requiring companies with more than 10,000 employees to spend at least 8 percent of its payroll on worker health care, or pay the difference into a state fund to expand health coverage. Wal-Mart is the only company affected, and there's been a lot of squawking about that, with predictable dire warnings from Wal-Mart defenders that the Maryland economy will tank with such a law on the books.

Never mind that taxpayers might have to foot the bill for uninsured or underinsured Marylanders, including some of Wal-Mart's work force here, who can't pay their medical bills.

And never mind that, in little old Somerset County, it might mean more development, more housing, more congestion, more traffic, more erosion, more pollution. We've got this idea that jobs should be everywhere, housing should be everywhere, shopping malls everywhere. Everything will soon be everywhere and there won't be anything anywhere left.

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