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baltimoresun.com

Sprawl is the real enemy of rural living

7:30 AM EDT, November 2, 2011

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A war on rural Maryland? We've been under siege for decades. But the enemy is sprawling development pressure, not government policies. ("Rural leaders rebel against O'Malley's statewide growth plan," Oct. 27). I should know. The Bay Bridge empties directly into my county.

PlanMaryland, the state's new thinking about how to manage its future growth, is a positive step. It seeks to have rural towns absorb a greater portion of new residents, and in the process revive those towns, save tax dollars, preserve our farms and forests, and cut down on our endless commuting time, among other benefits.

The plan doesn't overstep the authority of local governments. It makes the state a partner with local governments to creatively remake our rural towns into attractive places to live, and it rewards innovation in that process. That seems more effective and fair than our current policy in which my tax dollars subsidize the very type of sprawl development that is bulldozing my rural landscape. Who do you think pays for those county roads that run all the way out to far-flung subdivisions?

Over 1 million acres of Maryland forest and farm land has been developed in the past 30 years, according to the Maryland Department of Planning. The cause of this relentless destruction: sprawling development that pushes people to live and shop further and further from existing towns, and as a result turn historic downtowns into ghost towns and farm fields into mall parking lots.

On the Eastern Shore I drive through too many towns that are down on their luck, their once vibrant business districts or main streets now sickly, abandoned by merchants and customers alike. The money is all going outside of town, into subdivisions that replace farms or woodlands, into malls and box stores.

The answer, in part, is to help our rural towns remake themselves. Small town life was once the heart and soul of our nation. It should at least be an option for home buyers now.

As a home builder myself for the past several decades, I know this is not a pipe dream. People want community. They want the option to buy a home in town where they can walk to the store, to the park, to schools.

But we need innovative ideas for the rural town makeover. And we need resources.

Across Maryland, we see examples of new thinking about this old problem. Downtown Cumberland, the Villages of Urbana in Frederick County, the planned Waterview neighborhood in Baltimore County, the Carroll Creek redevelopment in Frederick; these are some of the existing and planned development projects that are revitalizing our rural communities, saving farms, and preserving our rural character.

PlanMaryland proposes that state government help spur this type of economic development by collaborating with counties, towns and cities, and funneling a greater portion of state tax dollars to local governments that want this growth. It wouldn't mean all development would occur in cities or towns, but more. Local governments interested in sprawl growth as the only option for residents would receive some portion less of state dollars that help localities with transportation, farm preservation, water and sewer infrastructure and other needs.

PlanMaryland is one of several policy changes Maryland is considering and will address in the coming months. A state task force appointed by Gov. Martin O'Malley and composed of everyone from home builders, rural government officials and environmentalists, is trying to best decide how the state might reduce the use of septic systems in the state which discharge up to 10 times more nitrogen pollution into our water than households hooked up to sewer. And state legislators will soon be trying to figure out how to fund improvements to sewer plants, local storm water drainage systems, and other pollution problems that prevent us from cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay.

All these problems clearly are related to growth — to the 15 percent surge in population and 900,000 new residents we are expecting by the year 2030. We can wring our hands at this fact, or shake our fists at convenient scapegoats, or we can get down to the work of creative problem solving to manage the growth.

I want Maryland government to help defuse the war on rural Maryland, not stand on the sidelines.

David Dunmyer, Centreville

The writer is a Queen Anne's County Commissioner.