Eastern Shore redux

July 16, 2006

Not since the period just after the 1952 opening of the first Bay Bridge has the Eastern Shore braced itself for such an onslaught of unprecedented change. Planners predict that in the next 25 years, the Shore's population of 425,000 will grow by nearly a third. From Elkton to Crisfield, growth is the subject on most people's minds. The very word elicits fear in some, joy in others. Will it be Godzilla, rampaging the lovely landscapes with developments, or the Jolly Green Giant, spreading opportunity and other goodies across the peninsula?

Shore folks don't have to wait for the answers. They can decide for themselves. In modern history, there has never been a better time for Eastern Shore counties to form an alliance with the sole purpose of communicating information, sharing ideas and, ultimately, agreeing upon what is best for the region as a whole. Despite what many outsiders think, today's Shore does not have a single voice or even a shared perspective. There are really three parochial Eastern Shores - the Upper, the Middle and the Lower - and they often compete with each other for highway dollars, industry, tourism and other economic benefits. Before it can collectively address the growth pressures coming from the outside, the Shore ought to cease its sectarianism and, at least figuratively, look beyond its interior boundaries.

There's a model of sorts for this kind of regional planning. The Tri-County Council of Southern Maryland brought local elected leaders from Calvert, Charles and St. Mary's counties together at the same table for the first time in 1964. In those days, one of the compelling reasons to work in unison was an uncertain economic future brought about by the loss of slots. The Shore's uncertain future has more to do with gains - congestion, crime, density, demands on public services - and how to mitigate the negatives while nurturing the positive aspects of growth.

Some parts of the Shore have demonstrated the ability to work in regional accord. Chesapeake College, for example, serves students from several counties. Shared landfills are another success. Down the road, maybe there will be regional detention centers and airports instead of each county insisting on having its own.

The move toward a regional approach is afoot in some quarters, notably among land preservationists, the agriculture community and, in a few cases, economic developers. What's missing is the cachet and cooperation of elected leaders willing to sit together as an official body and speak with one voice. That may be a hard pill for some of the more independent-minded leaders to swallow. But the future of the region is at stake. And the future won't wait for anyone.

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