Report faults development in Wicomico

Eastern Shore county losing farmland as it struggles with rate of growth faster than state's


Wicomico County is quickly losing its farmland to development and is doing a poor job managing growth, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation says in a report to be released today.

The report, "Vanishing Lands: The Erosion of Rural Character in Wicomico County," looks at the pressure for growth in the county and offers solutions for preserving more rural land. The Lower Eastern Shore county, which includes Salisbury, is growing at a faster rate than the state of Maryland overall and is allowing much of the development to occur in areas that are outside designated growth corridors.

In a survey of 600 registered county voters, the bay foundation found that 90 percent wanted to live in a county with "abundant natural areas." Though agriculture is the county's most productive industry, environmentalists worry that the steady march of housing units will take away valuable farmland.

"This county does have policies that are less strong than others when it comes to land-use management," said Alan Girard, who manages the foundation's Salisbury office. "You do still see a trend toward developing at high densities in the agricultural zone."

The report, which Girard is to present tonight at Salisbury University, comes amid growing concern about the Eastern Shore losing its farmland to development.

In neighboring Dorchester County, the foundation is fighting a plan to build 3,200 homes near the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. Thousands of new homes are also being planned for Worcester, Caroline and Queen Anne's counties.

The foundation recommends using voluntary programs to increase the amount of land that is preserved, increasing funding for preservation and tightening zoning regulations in agricultural districts.

Jack Lennox, planning director for Wicomico County and the city of Salisbury, said the county once had few restrictions on rural land development. As a result, most new development occurred in rural, unincorporated areas, which make up about two-thirds of the county.

But in 1998, he said, the county updated its land plan, established growth areas and channeled projects to its municipalities. Now, he said, growth goes to the designated areas, reducing sprawl.

Lennox added that the foundation may not have asked the right question when it did its polling. Most people like having green space and natural areas, but not everyone wants them if it means higher taxes or less money for schools. Preserving county lands costs money, and the County Council has to decide how to best spend its revenue. Still, he said, he is glad the foundation has an active office in Salisbury and is keeping watch on the shore.

"Do we still need to do more? Absolutely. Do we want to make better strides at preserving agriculture? Absolutely," Lennox said, adding that the county would take the foundation's recommendations seriously.

County Councilwoman Gail M. Bartkovich, a Republican from Salisbury, also questioned whether the report reflected recent changes Wicomico has made to the zoning code and its comprehensive plan.

"Some of the information here is back to 1997 or 2002," Bartkovich said. "We have the highest percentage of farmland in the state. All this growth is happening so fast, we're working hard just to keep up."

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