Crunching numbers on Maryland's land crunch

How much conservation is enough in state that keeps growing?

April 17, 2013|Dan Rodricks

Today is "Skeptical Reader Day" at the Dan Rodricks column. Today, at no extra charge, I will answer a letter from an anonymous reader who questioned a figure that appeared in this space last week, to wit: "The Department of Natural Resources says Maryland loses 25,000 acres of agricultural and forest land to development each year."

"Really?" Anonymous asked. "Can that possibly be true? If a typical house is on .25 acres ..."

Take cover, friends! Incoming amazing math!

" ... that translates to 100,000 homes per year, or 8,333 homes per month, or in a 30-day month including weekends, 277 homes per day."

Told ya.

"Even if you assume one acre per home," Anonymous went on, "the figures are 25,000 homes per year, or 2,083 per month, 69 per day. Granted, some of the loss is to commercial and industrial development, but still ... ?"

Dear Anonymous:

First, thanks for the question. I don't know why you didn't attach your name to the letter. But I'm glad you took time to ask your question. It deserves an answer.

The figure I quoted came from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources' website, and specifically the home page of the Rural Legacy Program. That program was established in 1997 to protect large tracts of land in rural areas from the sprawl of development, with, of course, the cooperation of landowners, including farmers. The idea is to save forests, wetlands and greenways for wildlife habitat and for a buffer against polluted runoff that harms the Chesapeake and its tributaries.

I did no other checking of the figure; I assumed that the DNR stands by its figure, and it does. Many reporters and columnists do this on a regular basis. Certain figures become "operative" at a some point, used so frequently they are assumed to be correct.

But I did some further checking.

In 2010, the Maryland Department of Planning, tracking development activity across the state, said we can expect to lose approximately 560,000 acres to development by 2030, "the equivalent of the land area of Anne Arundel and Prince George's Counties combined."

Do the math, and that's an even higher projection than DNR's — about 28,000 acres per year.

And we're not just talking about houses on one-acre lots. We're talking about shopping centers, office parks, light industrial developments, roads.

Because we don't have enough places to shop in this state, a company that already runs two outlet centers in Maryland announced just this week plans for a third — on a 100-acre parcel in the once-quiet community of Clarksburg in Montgomery County.

In case you haven't noticed, we're up to our keister in strip malls, shopping centers, congested highways and sprawling developments of homes on large lots and private wells and septic systems.

So, while I understand being skeptical about numbers — particularly estimates and projections — anyone who drives around this state should not be surprised to hear that surveys show a net loss of thousands of acres of land to development each year. The growth continues. We measure progress in this state, in this country, by new housing starts — not in old homes renovated, or abandoned city neighborhoods reclaimed.

"How many acres have been preserved so far?" Anonymous wanted to know.

According to the DNR, the Rural Legacy Program has preserved 76,809 acres of farmland, forest and habitat.

The Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Program, established in 1977, has permanently protected more than 280,000 acres of farmland so far, according to the Department of Agriculture.

Additionally, Program Open Space was established in the late 1960s to acquire land for public use — parks, forests, wildlife habitat, natural and scenic areas — and the DNR says we now have more than 6,000 parks and conservation areas, accounting for another 362,00 acres.

Add conservation easements held by the Maryland Environmental Trust, and we're looking at more than 700,000 acres.

"How much preserved land is enough?" Anonymous asked. "With programs such as the Agricultural Land Preservation, Rural Legacy and Open Space, is there no end in sight?"

Let me try and answer that with this:

In 2002, the General Assembly passed a joint resolution calling for dramatically increasing the amount of agricultural land in preservation. The goal is 1.03 million acres by 2022. John Coleman, spokesman for the Maryland Department of Planning, says the state is about halfway to that goal.

So, Anonymous, I guess you can say the end is in sight, as long as the legislature keeps putting up the money needed to meet the goals it established.

The Department of Planning says that, by 2030, Maryland will have nearly 1 million more people than it had in 2010. If we're going to accommodate all those people while we continue to foster a growth economy, with any hope of maintaining a decent quality of life, we're going to need smart stewardship and the bucks to preserve our green spaces to offset the anticipated losses up ahead.

Hope this helps.

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