State's thirst for growth will take toll on environment


November 29, 2005|By TOM HORTON

Is there life after growth in Maryland?

Are the nearly 6 million people who live here now more important than the 1.1 million projected to come here by 2025?

Is the goal of land-use planning to make our communities better, not just less bad?

Does a "sustainable" environment include all species - not just ours?

Instead of shooting all the lawyers, should we gun for economists?

"Yes" to all of these should seem obvious to anyone who has worried about the quality of life around Chesapeake country.

But "no" to them all is closer to how we operate. And our landscape, our bay and our children are going to pay for our unthinking allegiance to accommodating any growth projections we are handed.

Growth is good - no ifs, ands, buts or limits. You see the message every day: "Concern over slowdown in new housing." Or, "State shows `solid' gain of 51,800 jobs." Jobs, which don't much lower Maryland's already low unemployment rate, come attached, of course, to new people, more cars, more roads, more pollution and often higher taxes.

But "planning" will take care of all that, we're assured.

And it does, some. But not nearly all. For the environment, for quality of life, it's death by a thousand small cuts.

And what choice do we have? Another million or so people will be here by 2025, the planners say.

But those projections, even if made in good faith, are based on decades of economic and political policies designed always to accommodate, if not outright woo more people.

In other words, they aren't destiny unless, unquestioning, we let them become our goals.

Marylanders living here now clearly don't want that. Polls and surveys consistently show a healthy majority want slower growth, and feel development is degrading our quality of life.

So why does rampant sprawl and a politics of growth accommodation rule us so?

Let's begin with what has been termed the "land industry" or the "growth machine" - the bankers, Realtors, developers, asphalt and cement companies, construction trades, homebuilders, surveyors, land speculators and related industries who do benefit from unending growth.

They are seldom considered a monolith, like the auto industry. Yet they reliably coalesce to lobby and research and politic for anything pro-growth, and to fight slow growth. Horn-tooting economists lend them an aura of legitimacy.

"This land development industry is the most powerful political force in America today at the local level, where most of the land-use decisions are made," says Eben Fodor, a Montgomery County boy who grew up to be one of the country's most thoughtful questioners of the growth-is-good mantra.

Fodor, who heads his own land-use consulting and research firm in Oregon, spoke recently in Maryland, detailing how the "growth machine" dominates local political contributions.

He understands that there are issues beyond immediate control that drive growth: growing national population and our treasured freedom to move wherever we want (such as to coastal states like Maryland).

But there are plenty of ways to begin slowing growth in our own counties and towns, he says:

Plan for what the existing population desires, not whatever is projected.

Make growth pay its way. New single-family homes usually require $20,000 or more in added water, sewer, storm drains, roads, schools, police, fire protection - and this doesn't include the costs of the added air pollution and losses of farmland, forests and wildlife.

Begin using sustainability as a planning goal, defined as "humans co-existing with nature, all species, for all time."

Fodor notes that sprawl has reached such proportions that a single generation nowadays sees more development of the landscape than in all U.S. history. No wonder we're worried about quality of life.

There's a huge need, he says, for research on how growth actually works and doesn't work vis-a-vis our prosperity and wellbeing (some places, such as Baltimore City for example, might benefit from lots of growth).

But states with the best pro-growth Chamber of Commerce business ratings often have lower per capita income growth than states with bad business ratings.

A California study shows limiting growth doesn't necessarily make housing costs soar; and the Wall Street Journal reported recently that the best stock-market returns in international investing consistently come from low-growth countries.

A 2002 discussion paper by Rutgers University economist Paul Gottlieb for the Brookings Institution found virtually no correlation between growth and individual income in metropolitan areas nationwide.

Meanwhile, the growth industry and its economist toadies generate a constant drumbeat of "growth is good, growth is inevitable, grow or die" publicity.

As an antidote, read Fodor's book Better Not Bigger: How to Take Control of Urban Growth and Improve Your Community (New Society Publishers, 1999).

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