WASHINGTON — Washington. Why is Maryland getting uglier and what can be done about it? These questions should be considered as part of the current debate on growth.
Despite large planning staffs, a fine park system and -- at least in certain counties -- some of the nation's most sophisticated land-use controls, the special character of Maryland's countryside is disappearing faster than ever. Sprawling, ugly, auto-dependent development is destroying trees, eating up open space, breeding clutter and eroding what's left of our historic heritage and sense of place.
Take U.S. 50. It was once a pleasing road that opened up the countryside and revealed the land. Today, like much of the Maryland, the land along U.S. 50 is changing: forests, farmlands and scenic vistas are disappearing, replaced by metal self-storage sheds, discount decoy bazaars, drab fast-food franchises, and from the Bay Bridge to Ocean City billboard after monstrous billboard.
More and more people feel dissatisfaction with the quality of new development. For all the improvements in transportation and environmental quality, people still ask: Is this all there is? Can't our state be more distinctive? More livable? More beautiful?
The 2020 growth-management proposal was a step in the right direction. But even if it had passed it would have done little to preserve our regional identity or sense of place. The reason is simple: It is not enough to control the pace and location of growth; we need to pay equal attention to the character and look of growth. Most people aren't opposed to growth itself, but only to the kind of ugly, environmentally destructive growth we typically get. A civic leader in Orange County, California, expressed it this way: "We were in favor of progress until we saw what it looked like."
Insensitive development, the short-term views and copy-cat logic corporate America and the absence of strong aesthetic controls are giving Maryland an identity crisis. Here are six steps we should take now:
* Strengthen sign ordinances. Almost nothing will destroy the distinctive character of a place faster than uncontrolled signs and billboards. Many local sign ordinances are not being enforced and are too lax to begin with. From Cumberland to Crisfield, sign clutter, like the junk mail of the streetscape, follows us everywhere. Local communities should crack down on illegal signs, ban new billboards and impose stricter on-premise sign controls (e.g. monument signs only) along all major commercial arteries.
* Pass a tough tree ordinance. Maryland is rapidly losing its trees to developers, utility companies, state highway officials, gypsy moths and others. State officials should initiate an aggressive program of new tree planting, particularly along roadsides and in median strips. Charlotte, North Carolina, requires trees to line every new road. We should do the same. With new roads, you get new trees -- a simple idea with profound long-range effect.
Maryland needs the proposed Forest Conservation Act. Local governments should follow Prince George's County's lead by enacting comprehensive tree-preservation ordinances that do a better job of protecting existing trees and that require commercial and residential developers to plant more new trees -- particularly shade trees -- as part of the development process.
* Impose controls on franchise design. Does every fast-food franchise have to look exactly alike? Of course not. Franchises like Pizza Hut and 7-11 can be encouraged and if necessary required to make their buildings fit each community's unique, natural, historic and architectural character. In Freeport, Maine, the McDonald's is located in a restored 18th-century house, complete with compatible landscaping and a modest wooden sign. Another example is in Annapolis' Historic District, where the Burger King is in a sympathetic new building.
* Create a Maryland greenbelt. The Washington suburbs need a greenbelt more than they need another beltway. Maryland counties should enlarge their agricultural and open-space preserves to link existing parks and historic sites, thereby creating a ribbon of green around Baltimore and Washington. By acquiring open space, particularly along rivers, streams and in critical scenic and environmental areas, the state could create a network of bike trails and greenways, giving every resident access to green space and place for recreation.
* Protect our historic resources. Uniontown, Snow Hill, New Market, Oxford, White's Ferry, Takoma Park and similar locations are irreplaceable parts of our heritage, physically linking us to the past. Maryland should place more emphasis on historic preservation and move to protect threatened landmarks like Antietam battlefield, Baltimore's financial district and Silver Spring's Forest Glen. As the noted preservationist Robert Stipe once said: "We must preserve our past not only because it is unique, exceptional, architecturally significant and historically important but also because in most cases what replaces it will be inhuman and grotesque."
* Instill aesthetics into all aspects of planning. Growth is inevitable, ugliness is not. Much of Maryland is still beautiful, but unless we pay more attention to aesthetics, soulless suburban sprawl will uglify it all. The state should return to the planning policies of the past when streets were laid out as boulevards with landscaped medians and we built parkways instead of just highways.
Sidewalks, street trees, underground utility wires and a rural scenic-roads program that actually protects scenery, would all help. Maybe if Montgomery County's Kentlands new town succeeds, we can even hope developers will start building neighborhoods again instead of just subdivisions. State and local officials should consider aesthetics in planning because beauty is a basic human need. It is also good for business.
As the philosopher John Ruskin once said, "to speak for beauty is to speak for humanity."
Edward T. McMahon, a Takoma Park resident, is a visiting scholar at the Environmental Law Institute.