Development of rural areas challenges advocates, planners

Battle over southern Arundel is the latest to attract controversy as governments balance nature, economy in suburbs

  • A property on Old Solomons Road, in Friendship
A property on Old Solomons Road, in Friendship (Karl Merton Ferron, Baltimore…)
June 01, 2011|By Nicole Fuller, The Baltimore Sun

Clayton James has tried in vain to transform 24 acres of waterfront woodlands into apartments for senior citizens in southern Anne Arundel County, a housing stock he says is sorely needed in the rural part of the county.

For nearly nine years, neighbors and preservationists have fought the Crandall Cove development of 32 senior apartments on land given to James' nonprofit group, decrying the move to develop the heavily forested land in Churchton overlooking the waters of Deep Cove Creek. County land use officials have ruled that his project is inappropriate for the area, where County Executive John R. Leopold is trying to delay the consideration of broad zoning changes.

"I grew up on the West River," said James. "I don't want to do anything that harms the bay, and that's why I don't want to do anything that will have an impact. We wanted to keep the disturbance to a minimum and keep the majority of the forest area."

Such battles over rural land have been fought in every suburban county in the Baltimore area, and this year the spotlight is on Anne Arundel, which is considering proposals in its once-in-a-decade rezoning. In addition to the Crandall Cove project, developers are seeking permission to increase density of homes two-fold in a single-family home neighborhood and to allow more people to live on boats.

In Anne Arundel and around Maryland, local lawmakers have broad latitude in determining the future of their districts. But land use advocates say letting local governments control zoning changes, which have lasting effects on the environment and character of communities, can have mixed results.

"The state delegated the authority for land use to local governments, which is fine, but there must be some accountability to that land use because it matters to the state," said Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of 1000 Friends of Maryland. "The state picks up the bill for schools, impact on the bay. And it's not OK for the counties to not have any accountability for that."

Baltimore County, which has been noted as a national leader in rural land preservation, developed an urban-rural demarcation zone in the late 1960s and has worked to contain about two-thirds of its population in densely populated areas.

By comparison, in largely rural Carroll County, development plans have been dictated by the county commissioners. Land use advocates say the elected leaders there have alternated between containing growth to pockets that are served by infrastructure — orads and utilities — and allowing new homes to gobble up farmland.

Anne Arundel faces particular growth pressure because of its location between Baltimore and Washington, while neighboring counties in Southern Maryland have experienced some of the fastest expansion in the state. Anne Arundel's most southern region has modest population gains in the past decade, increasing its population by about 3,600. The entire South County area has a population of almost 55,000, according to recent census statistics.

District 7, known as South County, begins in the Edgewater area and stretches south to North Beach and the northern border of Calvert County. The area includes a sizable farming community dotted with small residential communities, a way of life most residents and political leaders agree should remain. But some say development could provide a much-needed economic boost.

Leopold took steps last week to put the comprehensive rezoning process on hold, citing the impact of his county's decision on Crandall Cove and other projects up for rezoning in the county's most rural enclave, though several County Council members have objected to changing the process.

"If you're going to try to increase density outside of designated development areas, we're going to put our foot down," said Leopold. "The current process is clearly flawed. The public is entitled to a thorough opportunity to have input. I want to ensure that citizens play a larger role in the process."

Schmidt-Perkins said that while the state has implemented significant land protection policies — such as incentives for preserving open space and the creation of the Critical Area, which protects land around the Chesapeake Bay — counties and local jurisdictions should be more accountable.

Anne Arundel's zoning laws are largely dictated by the county's General Development Plan and its Small Area Plans, which outline appropriate development in specific areas across the county.

Mike Shay, vice president of the South Arundel Citizens for Responsible Development, has fought for more than 15 years against development in Anne Arundel, beginning with his organization's successful push to prevent a Safeway from being built in rural Deale. Many of the projects being considered in southern Anne Arundel's current rezoning process would interrupt contiguous tracts of undeveloped land, which Shay has vowed to protect.

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