Responsible growth

Our view : Despite budget problems and the prospect of stirring stiff local opposition, Governor O'Malley still has a chance to halt sprawl and spare the Chesapeake Bay

December 07, 2008

Last week, Gov. Martin O'Malley offered some welcome news for Maryland's environmental future - the acquisition of more than 9,200 acres of forest, farm and waterfront to be preserved as parks and open space. He also announced the creation of a Web-based interactive map called GreenPrint that makes it easier to track such conservation efforts across the state.

As promising as these developments are (a willingness to spend $72 million for land conservation at a time when state employees face mandatory furloughs is no small gesture), environmental advocates are looking for an even bigger prize: a revised and re-energized Smart Growth program.

While it's great to preserve pristine, historic and environmentally valuable land whenever possible, the effort is a drop in the bucket compared with the amount of land lost to inefficient, unsustainable and short-sighted development each day. Growth can be accommodated; sprawl cannot.

Mr. O'Malley knows the statistics all too well (he repeated many of them at his GreenPrint unveiling). Since 1990, Maryland's population has grown by 8 percent, but the amount of impermeable surface has increased by more than 40 percent. That's parking lots and streets, roofs and sidewalks. Run-off from these green-free structures is a prime source of pollution into streams, rivers and eventually the Chesapeake Bay.

Meanwhile, the watershed is expected to attract 1 million more residents within the next two decades. If past development patterns are allowed to continue, that will be catastrophic for water quality.

Smart Growth puts the onus on local government to do a better job of directing development into older communities and preserving forests and fields. But it has proved relatively toothless over time with incentives that are too modest and restrictions too easily sidestepped.

That has to change. Counties that don't stick to their comprehensive plans ought to forfeit state funding for transportation, schools and other public works. And those plans need to be more rigorous with clearly defined areas reserved for future growth. Developments that don't comply ought not be allowed.

Mr. O'Malley has hinted that he would like to see Smart Growth improved along these lines. Improvements to the Chesapeake Bay Critical Area law he supported this year suggest that's the case - at least for shorefront property.

But any serious Smart Growth revision would face stiff resistance from local governments. Decisions over planning and zoning are their bread-and-butter - and contributions from developers underwrite most local political campaigns.

Beset by budget problems that are likely to tax his political capital, the governor may choose to take a cautious approach when the General Assembly reconvenes next month and decide this is not a time to push for such a controversial proposal.

That would be a mistake. Public support for growth limits has never been higher. With a faltering economy, tax dollars have become too precious to waste subsidizing sprawl. The counties need to be held accountable. Nothing less than the future of the state's most precious natural resource depends on it.

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