Sign of the times

December 27, 2007

A tourist symbol intended to attract visitors to rural, historic and uncluttered parts of Maryland has become an unintended indicator of how poorly state and local officials have protected such vistas.

Black-eyed Susan road signs, which since 1988 have signaled a soothing entry into Maryland's back country, were removed this year from 250 miles of road deemed to no longer fit the designation of "scenic byways," according to The Sun's Julie Scharper.

Nearly 2,500 miles of scenic byways remain - but not for long, if unregulated sprawl keeps replacing horse farms with mini-mansions and forests with big-box storage facilities.

Much more than aesthetics is at stake. Most of this development is taking place outside planned growth areas served by public utilities. That means it depends on well water and septic tanks, which place a disproportionate burden on available resources.

As state Planning Secretary Richard E. Hall recently observed on these pages, those tract developments that suddenly spring up on the hillside, far from utility service, cause four to eight times more pollution per household than neighborhoods in designated growth areas.

Maryland is the fifth most densely populated state in the nation, and development pressure is only going to increase over the next decade or so. The state must act quickly to establish effective land-management curbs that address pollution of waterways and the shrinking supply of drinking water as well as traffic and other issues.

Admittedly, this will be a tough sell to developers and politicians looking to boost property tax revenue. Some county and municipal officials are balking at attempts to limit the loads on sewage treatment plants as a means of reducing pollutants flowing into the Chesapeake Bay. They warn the result will be more sprawl, and plead for regulatory relief.

But such sprawl can be avoided in part if state and local officials get tougher on the issuance of well and septic tank permits, which are now granted on an individual basis with no overall plan and no limit on nitrogen, the leading bay pollutant.

Terence Maxwell, head of the byways program, has only the power of persuasion to discourage ugly development or the unnecessary felling of trees along these bucolic routes.

For the sake of Maryland's environment as well as its scenic views, Mr. Maxwell's perspective should count for more when land-use decisions are made.

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