PlanMaryland will save, not destroy, the rural way of life

State planning secretary defends growth plan in face of opposition from Carroll County and elsewhere

October 31, 2011|By Richard E. Hall

Plenty of people have urged me not to attend today's forum about PlanMaryland sponsored by the Carroll County Board of Commissioners at the Pikesville Hilton. People who concur with us that PlanMaryland is a long-overdue idea, and even some who are less enthused, say the event is one-sided, not a public meeting and not worth our time. Their concern is that my attendance would legitimize the commissioners' invited speakers, whose views against smart growth and climate change are well-documented. Even the executive director of the Maryland Association of Counties, a group that has voiced many concerns about PlanMaryland but has continued to work very seriously with us on it, said of today's forum: "The potential for negative repercussions from this event … is very significant."

The reason I'm accepting my invitation is simple: I'd rather engage than not. From the beginning of this process three years ago, we've traversed the state many times meeting with local officials, businesspeople, environmentalists, lawmakers and others — about 3,000 people in all.

Our rationale for the need for a state growth plan for Maryland is also straightforward: The data on land consumption, environmental impact, loss of farms and forest, commute times and public infrastructure spending have been moving for decades in a direction that's not sustainable, not cost-effective and imperils the reason we love Maryland. I see the waterways that I enjoyed as a boy growing up on the Eastern Shore continually threatened, the rural areas I helped plan as a county planner being overtaken, and some cities and towns struggling economically as growth has spread far beyond them.

Some lawmakers contend they want to "save rural Maryland" from PlanMaryland, but their aim seems to be to "pave rural Maryland." Between 1982 and 2007, total land in farms declined by one-fifth, or 500,000 acres. The fragmentation and suburbanization of farmland has made it more difficult for remaining farmers to assemble large enough parcels to achieve economies of scale in production. Most Marylanders do not think of large houses on farm fields as saving rural Maryland. That kind of development pollutes our streams, rivers and bays; threatens agribusiness; and costs more to serve with public services.

If current trends continue, the state will lose another 226,000 acres of farms by 2035. Much of that land will be converted to homes on septic systems. Those homes will represent about one-quarter of new residences in Maryland but will churn out three-quarters of the nitrogen pollution into the bay.

The speakers being brought in today by Carroll County aren't likely to talk about that, because they have nothing to challenge our land use and environmental analysis. They're more apt to decry the science behind climate change — an issue that is a real concern, but only one of many reasons for PlanMaryland. Perhaps they should trot their argument to another state with less at stake: Maryland, along with Louisiana and Florida, would potentially be most affected because of an abundance of tidal shoreline.

From a fiscal standpoint, "business as usual" on sprawl doesn't work. We estimate that more than 12,000 new miles of roads would be needed at a cost of $100 billion in state and local dollars to support current trends. A smarter-growth approach could save an estimated $1.5 billion a year in infrastructure costs during the next 20 years. Growth that's too dispersed also makes it more expensive to employ mass transit to reduce commute times, which unfortunately have grown here to tops in the nation. No one wants to spend more time stuck in traffic. Overall, Marylanders spent more than 700 million hours commuting in 2009, time valued at almost $9 billion.

Contrary to criticism that PlanMaryland is anti-business, it would better position us to fully accommodate the 1 million new residents and 600,000 new jobs projected by 2035 in ways that put more workers and more jobs closer together — and without sacrificing our agricultural and natural resources to do so.

The contention that PlanMaryland seeks to overtake local comprehensive planning or zoning — another likely target for today's panel — is also false. The state long ago delegated zoning and planning authority to local jurisdictions; any change in that could only be made by the General Assembly. But the state has never relinquished the responsibility to ensure a healthy environment and safe and clean water. PlanMaryland would provide a better focus for us not to undermine that mission.

Richard E. Hall is the Maryland secretary of planning.

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