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State's Seven Visions law to manage growth is a defanged charade


From across Maryland they assembled a few weeks ago -- mayors, legislators, county executives, representatives of commerce and agriculture -- to take the Pledge of the Seven Visions.

If followed, the visions would revitalize towns and cities, protect the Chesapeake Bay, save taxpayers billions and maintain the charms of the Maryland landscape for a burgeoning population.

Between long tables of cookies, fresh strawberries and punch, the crowd stood in line to sign a large poster erected in the state capital, proclaiming the virtues of the Schaefer administration's new law to manage growth and development.

Approaching the proclamation -- "Visions for a better Maryland" -- some of the people no doubt signed sincerely. For many others, lightning should have singed their pen hands, for they were only attending the governor's incongruous celebration because of the unwritten eighth vision, which goes like this:

You don't really have to do the other seven visions.

The bottom line is that the new Economic Growth, Resource Protection and Planning Act of 1992 contains very little in the way of standards, guidelines, compliance and enforcement related to its "visions."

And so it has gone for two decades of grappling with the ugly, polluting and fiscally impoverishing ways in which Maryland has allowed its landscape to be developed. Good intentions and even good plans abound; but there's never enough political will or public outrage to stick to them.

Times seemed to be changing a few years ago. The 1987 update of the agreement to restore the Chesapeake Bay, signed by Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania and the U.S.Environmental Protection Agency, for the first time officially linked land use to the plight of the troubled estuary.

It found "a clear correlation between population growth and associated development and environmental degradation. . . ."

From that concern came the so-called 2020 Panel, charged withlooking 30 years ahead at the future of the bay. Endorsed by the bay region governors and the EPA, the panel concluded: "If we continue with the same patterns of growth, it is virtually impossible that the quality of life in the region will get anything but worse . . . unmanaged new growth has the potential to erase any progress made in bay improvements."

The document formed the basis for the visions in Maryland's new growth management law. The heart of these is that growth and environmental quality are compatible, but only if we can change the patterns of development.

In Maryland and the rest of the bay's six-state watershed, the 2020 panel found, we have abandoned the compact residential VTC patterns of the past, when most people lived in or near cities and towns. Rampant suburban sprawl now consumes our natural heritage, in much thesame way that we squandered gasoline in the heyday of the V-8 automobile.

Each newcomer to the bay region now occupies nearly four times as much land as someone who moved here in 1950. In Maryland alone that translates to development of at least another 1,000 square miles of forest and farmland by the year 2020.

Economically, the 2020 panel concluded, such sprawl is a horribly inefficient use of our most valuable finite resource -- the land. It will cost, across the watershed, an extra $11 billion for road networks alone, as compared to more compact development patterns. And it will yield far less in property taxes than we will have to pay for extending schools, utilities, fire and police and other services to a spread-out population.

Sprawl will also generate twice the air pollution (from more driving)and twice the sediment (from construction) flowing into waterways. Increasingly, air pollution from driving cars is becoming a significant source of bay pollution.

Less subject to statistical analysis, but of equal concern, are two other aspects of sprawl: It pulls vital resources away from struggling urban and town centers; and it transforms the unique regional flavors of our landscape -- the Eastern Shore, Frederick County's Middletown Valley, Virginia's Northern Neck -- into same-tasting suburban milkshakes.

In 1991, in a bold attempt to give teeth to the visions of a better Maryland and a cleaner bay, the Schaefer administration backed a growth bill that proposed restricting development in large areas of Maryland's remaining open spaces. Just as essential, it would have let developers be more creative in building at higher densities around existing population centers.

Growth could never be well-managed, the rationale went, as long as most of the forest and farmland that we pay lip service to preserving is in fact zoned for 1- to 5-acre residential lots.

The bill failed resoundingly, which brings us to 1992 and the defanged charade of the seven visions that finally passed. It is always possible that it represents, as its backers claim, an "important first step."

I think it shuts the door for at least five years on real progress, because counties have until 1997 to phase the "visions" into reality (if they are so inclined). And shutting the door was absolutely the intent of many who backed the bill -- the same local government, agriculture and developer-builder groups that have frustrated good land use for decades.

However, environmental groups and all the rest of us who feel so smart about growth control must take a hard look at why we have failed to mobilize the public.

Even within the environmental community, it was obvious that the strong measures proposed in 1991 were moving too far, too fast for many.

It is not that people are happy or complacent with current development.

Rather, they are unconvinced that there are good alternatives. Denser development patterns, or "clustering," for example, conjures for too many people images of asphalt jungles or soulless thickets of rowhouses.

Some builders actually are desirous and capable of innovating development that is both attractive and conserving of the landscape; but they would go broke defying the welter of local ordinances that virtually force the kind of cookie-cutter subdivision we now get.

There is also strong sentiment that landowners have the right to develop their land.

In fact, the Constitution speaks only of the right to reasonable use, which is to say that farmers may farm, foresters may harvest timber, and homeowners may continue to live in their homes.

A major education and consensus-building effort lies ahead. There is a need for model developments showing that quality lifestyles are not dependent on 2- to 5-acre lots.

No politician can be allowed to pledge allegiance to the Chesapeake Bay while endorsing the status quo on sprawl development.

For now, we are left with this irony: Maryland and its neighbor states, with their uniquely coordinated focus on the environment of the entire Chesapeake watershed, are world leaders in linking land use to water quality.

Yet in not doing anything about sprawl, Maryland and her neighbors are strikingly second-rate -- at least nine other states have done more -- and increasingly ugly.

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