Growth-control issue stalls efforts to clean up bay


When the Weber family bought their orchard near Havre de Grace some years back, they paid a premium. The high price wasn't based on the bounty of apples it yields each fall but on its potential to sprout an even more lucrative product: a housing development.

And so when Maryland recently proposed a limit on the Webers' second potential crop, they and hundreds of landowners like them stoodup and screamed that their property rights were being violated.

"Now the farmer's land is being devalued," said Stephen L. Weber, a Baltimore County fruit and vegetable farmer. "Our equity should be as sacred as the equity in your house."

From the banks of the Susquehanna River south to Norfolk, Va., cries of protest have been heard as state government leaders begin grappling with what has become the most contentious of all the Chesapeake Bay cleanup strategies: managing the land that drains into the estuary.

A three-year push to enact laws that would control the rapid sprawl chewing up rural Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia -- and the pollution off the land -- has stalled.

Even in Maryland, where supporters of growth management legislation thought they had the best chance for success, both the House of Delegates and the Senate quickly dispatched the measure to an uncertain future of further study.

So, it appears the Chesapeake Bay program is hitting its first major roadblock.

The reason, some bay policy analysts said, is that the easiest targets are under control. Industrial smokestacks and pipes are spewing fewer pollutants, and sewage plants are being rebuilt to reduce waste going into the bay.

But regulating pollution from the land is far harder, they said, because it requires individual sacrifice and local governments to give up some authority over land use planning.

"We are very challenged by how you get people to realize that private property rights are not sacrosanct," said William C. Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

Another hurdle some environmentalists say they face is translating the wide popular support for the bay cleanup into support for controls on growth.

Mr. Weber says he is one farmer who sees the need to curb rampant growth. The family farm, located a

mile from the Baltimore Beltway, had to be moved to Havre de Grace when most of the land was taken to make room for a school. Now he operates a cider mill and roadside market on the remaining 14 acres.

But, he said, he objects when he is prevented from developing land.

"The list of restrictions Maryland farmers work under now to protect the bay is incredible. We feel like we are an endangered species, too, andwe are out to protect our rights," Mr. Weber said.

In December 1987, when the new Chesapeake Bay agreement was signed, the governors of Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia pledged to evaluate the impact of growth on the region.

When that evaluation -- known informally as the 2020 report -- was released a year later, it called for major growth controls in all three states. Without controls, the report said, the millions already spent on cleaning the bay would be wasted.

The region's rural landscape would be swallowed by housing developments and shopping malls. In Maryland alone, an area twice the size of Baltimore is being developed every five years. And taxpayers would pay another $1.2 billion in the next 20 years to build the roads and utilities to support the sprawl.

Paving over the landscape will increase toxic runoff and reduce the amount of forest and wetland that filters pollutants. More cars commuting more miles to work and shopping will increase air pollution and thus the amount of acid rain and nitrogen deposited in the bay.

Despite the grim forecasts, Pennsylvania Gov. Robert P. Casey immediately rejected the idea of looking at growth controls as outlined in the 2020 report. In a state where local zoning authority rests with dozens of local governments, an attempt by the state to wrest that power away would be a hard-fought battle.

Since 1988, little has changed in that state. "I don't see anything happening there in the near future," said Robert Gray, chairman of the panel that wrote the 2020 report.

Virginia has moved toward growth management, but much more slowly than Maryland. A state panel there has said it will come up with a set of recommendations in 18 months. "They are going to proceed more slowly," Mr. Gray said. "The business community

and the development community is even stronger

in Virginia. . . . It is going to take something almost close to a miracle to get a bill there."

Maryland was thought to be the state most likely to get a law this year. The plan had the backing of Gov. William Donald Schaefer, and the state had taken a first step toward statewide controls in 1984 when it limited growth in the 1,000-foot strip bordering the bay -- the so-called critical area.

The proposed legislation would have clustered development around cities and towns, preserved forests and farmland by limiting development to one unit in 20 acres, and forbidden development in four sensitive areas: flood plains, steep slopes, land close to streams and habitat for endangered species.

But when a state panel representing various interest groups presented its recommendations in November, public opposition immediately surfaced from developers, farmers, rural landowners, county executives and county planners. In Southern Maryland, for instance, more than 800 people turned up to speak against the proposal.

Even Sen. C. Bernard Fowler, D-Calvert, a longtime friend to the Chesapeake Bay, opposed the bill. He said that the plan usurps the authority of county planners and that the legislature and public were given too little time to debate the issue before the General Assembly convened.

The 32-member panel met in public for a year, but a final draft report was written behind closed doors in the fall, leaving little time for the panel to sell its proposal.

"A lot of interest groups don't think they played a part in the process," said Ann Swanson, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, a tri-state legislative advisory commission.

Ironically, while the Schaefer administration bill faltered, the public supports controlling growth. A 1989 Sun Poll found that 83 percent of the 2,000 residents surveyed in five counties around Baltimore favored controls on growth and preservationof forests, farms and open space.

But Mr. Baker at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation said the public's concern has not been translated into an understanding of what the solutions should be. The public still believes that tract development on 2-acre lots is a good thing, he said. "All that does is spread the slime farther and farther out," he said.

Several bay experts also said they believe the economy and dTC state budget deficit played major roles in defeating the measure. Legislators were not in the mood to pass a law attempting something bold, they said.

And the governor's poor relationship with the legislature nearly doomed the measure. "I think [Mr. Schaefer] really believes in this issue, but I don't think he wields the clout to get this through in Maryland," Mr. Gray said.

Legislators and some panel members say the plan has not been sent off to be quietly killed during a summer study. Instead, they say they will rework it to make it more acceptable to opponents, such as farmers and local planners.

When a new law will emerge is still in question. Optimists, such as Robert Perciasepe, a panel member and state environment secretary, believe it will pass next year and that it would have passed this year if both sides had been willing to compromise slightly.

But Mr. Gray said that unless strong political leadership from the governors or legislatures in the three states emerges soon, he is pessimistic about the chances of growth controls beginning to take effect until the end of the century.

Michael D. Barnes, a former congressman who headed the state commission, has no doubt that Maryland will eventually pass controls. "We are destroying our state so rapidly, and it is so obvious that the demand for action will come," he said.

Mr. Weber agrees on that point. "We are not saying it shouldn't be done," he said. But "we want more input and recognition that we are paying the price."

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