Ill effects of sprawl make long, sad tale

Development: A cornerstone of state economy consumes our natural heritage.

April 22, 2005|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

IN BASIC FORM and content, down to the quotes, the story has changed little since I began writing it in 1972 - and I was hardly the first.

It is the story of sprawl development that is consuming Maryland's farms and forests, degrading our rural heritage, diminishing options for recreation, increasing pollution.

Sprawl of course also forms perhaps the cornerstone of Maryland's economy, if one considers all the clearing, building, surveying, real estate, paving, subdividing, and other jobs in what I call the Land Industry.

FOR THE RECORD - A correction : In last week's column on sprawl, I incorrectly characterized a state planning official as "apologizing" for a dip in Maryland's population growth. His point was that even though other regions are growing faster, our state's economy is performing well.

Other reporters cover sprawl now, but the stories read the same - neighbors alarmed at homes sprouting in rural surroundings; developers' lawyers saying, "They've got their piece of the countryside and want to slam the door on others."

No one champions sprawl, though the Land Industry, invoking individual property rights and economic prosperity, lobbies fiercely to maintain all conditions for it to continue.

Just as foxes would doubtless favor maintaining all opportunities for the spread of henhouses, their motives should never be confused with the public good.

Why is sprawl so persistent, and is it destiny? Have we learned anything other than how to better describe its impacts with satellite photos and computer-aided graphics?

At the nuts-and-bolts level, it's clear what's wrong. Rural zoning stinks. Only two of Maryland's 23 counties, Baltimore and Montgomery, set minimum lot sizes large enough to really protect the countryside.

Even these models point up a flaw - the lack of regional land use planning. Sprawl simply leapfrogged into York County, Pa., and over Montgomery into Frederick and Washington counties.

State road building and other spending on autos over mass transit encourages sprawl. "Car habitat," as one study called it - roadways, driveways, garages and parking lots - accounts for 55 percent to 75 percent of paving around the bay.

Smart Growth, a hopeful program to use state spending and the bully pulpit of the governor to boost development around existing communities and damp it in rural areas, has languished under Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

Scarcely anyone wants to voice, let alone grapple with, the underlying issues. Population around the bay has doubled since 1950, and continues growing at about 500,000 people a decade in Maryland alone.

With more than 5 million people on about 6 million acres, we're the fifth-most-densely populated state in the U.S. By 2050, Maryland will be more dense than all but two European nations, Belgium and the Netherlands.

A recent sprawl story quoted a state planning official apologizing for a (most likely temporary) fall-off in population growth here, to only 45,000 new people last year. It didn't mean the state was doing worse, he said.

It illustrates the prevailing, uncritical wisdom: Growth is good, the more the better, ad infinitum. Only cancer cells share that philosophy.

The modern economic theory that underpins our development of land, notes University of Maryland economist Herman Daly, is concerned with the best allocation of resources, but ignores questions of scale: How big should we grow?

Proper scale is key to maintaining quality of life. We may never define precisely an optimal scale of development. But could we just agree there is one? And that it would be one that lets our kids enjoy the outdoors experiences we have treasured?

Without tackling such big issues, we can only try to make the best of a worsening situation across the Maryland landscape.

Even so, we can do far better.

First, recognize the Land Industry is heavily based on exploiting virgin resources, i.e. open space, and must shift toward recycling and re-use, creating attractive, compact living space in and around existing centers. Currently it wastes land like SUVs waste gas.

The potential for reform is huge. A Maryland Department of Planning report estimates that with aggressive Smart Growth policy, including good rural zoning, we can put everyone moving here by 2025 on 355,000 fewer acres of open space.

Maryland has some of the nation's best programs for protecting land, but the governor has slashed funding by hundreds of millions of dollars. This must be restored, now.

Equally critical to pursue are studies that may convince farmers and other large landholders that stricter zoning won't deprive them of value. A major analytical and educational effort is needed.

If quality of life doesn't move you, consider the bum fiscal deal from sprawl. The state's spent billions to protect land whose open space and farm values will increasingly erode as development encroaches.

As long as we see open space as an irreplaceable feedstock of economic well-being, we're doomed to reading sprawl stories. There's got to be better news than that.

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