Counties cry wolf over development restrictions

Our view: Maryland needs new approach to stop harmful sprawl, protect the quality of life and save state taxpayers billions of dollars

August 23, 2011

Turns out that loud moaning sound emanating from Ocean City last week was not a meteorological event (or even an early warning of the East Coast earthquake-to-come) but the collective sound of local elected officials at the Maryland Association of Counties annual meeting voicing their displeasure. They're unhappy with the O'Malley administration's latest efforts to encourage rational land use decisions and aren't shy about expressing their opposition.

Of course, the MACO take on the Maryland Department of Planning's "PlanMaryland" program is slightly different from Gov. Martin O'Malley assertion that local government will retain the right to make bad choices no matter what. But most county officials still see giving the state any say in development decisions tantamount to a declaration of war.

No surprise there. Planning and zoning is the bread and butter of local government. Rarely does a day go by that counties and their councils and commissions aren't making choices over what developers can or can't do, whether it's a massive multi-use development that requires a whole new zoning designation or the guy down the street who just wants a special exception to run a business from his home.

The problem is that local government has, at least in many instances, done a terrible job of saying no to sprawl. The consequence of this suffering by a thousand blows has become increasingly serious not only for the environment and quality of life but also for the taxpayer.

By 2035, Maryland's population is expected to grow by 1 million, with 500,000 new homes and 600,000 new jobs. But if current trends continue, that will require chewing up hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland and forests while other neighborhoods are left empty or blighted, the abandoned residue of failed developments past.

While the state has grown 39 percent in population since 1973, the amount of developed land in the state has grown 154 percent. That's an unsustainable pattern of growth, and it is proving ruinous for the Chesapeake Bay — and for the state's finances.

Past efforts to contain sprawl, most notably Maryland's smart growth program launched under Gov. Parris N. Glendening that was supposed to direct growth toward certain areas in order to preserve open spaces, have had all the effect of a diet based on refrigerator door post-it notes. The effort may have been well-intentioned, but sterner stuff is required.

When counties choose to allow far-flung development rather than restrict it to existing higher-density areas, the cost of state-subsidized schools, roads and other infrastructure increases markedly. Meanwhile, aging cities and towns that should be redeveloped to accommodate growth are neglected and they, too, become burdens for the taxpayer.

For all the carping from local leaders meeting in Ocean City, PlanMaryland merely attempts to provide incentives for counties to make smarter choices in the future. Want to allow development outside designated growth areas? Fine, but don't expect the state taxpayer to pick up the bill for the requisite water and sewer extensions, roads and schools.

That's not a state takeover of the local planning prerogatives but a matter of drawing a clear and reasonable line and protecting the interests of all Marylanders. County officials have had plenty of time to ponder the ramifications of a program that's been in the works for more than a year. Now, it's time for them to find ways to make PlanMaryland work — and in the process save taxpayers billions of dollars at a time when they could use the money.

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