Wicomico going environmental Growth: A strong environmental push is coming from unexpected quarters the lower Eastern Shore.


THE LOWER EASTERN Shore, land of many virtues, is not, alas, noted for its cutting-edge environmentalism.

Individual rights and economic development are favored gods; government authority and environmental regulation are, at best, necessary evils.

Yet this month finds a united business community in Wicomico County and the city of Salisbury leading the charge for growth management nearly as bold as the "2020" land use plan environmentalists failed miserably at passing a few years ago.

And across the Nanticoke River in rural, conservative Dorchester County, you should hear real estate broker and County Commission President Jeff Powell on the recent adoption of a plan to direct growth away from popular, 2-acre country lots, toward struggling small towns:

"We owe it to our children and our children's children, so that years from now you can ride down the road and still be able to look across a thousand acres. [Our future] is to be the last rural enclave on the Eastern Shore."

There are some useful statewide lessons here, as Gov. Parris N. Glendening prepares to deliver, in the next legislative session, on perhaps the biggest campaign promise he made to environmentalists -- to institute effective statewide control of sprawl development for the first time in the nearly three decades it has been an issue.

From an environmental viewpoint alone, there is no doubt growth badly needs redirection into more compact patterns around population centers.

Under current trends, Maryland would convert, from forest and farms to housing, about as much acreage in the next few decades as in the state's preceding few centuries.

Such scattered patterns of land use rapidly erode recreational spaces and wildlife habitat. They also guarantee more air and water pollution, from more commuting and more clearing and paving and wetlands filling.

Still, it is clear from experience that if growth management enters the legislature as just an environmental item, as a bone the governor needs to toss to another special interest, then it probably will die, or pass in largely ineffectual form.

On the other hand, if it is done right, the work of changing the way Maryland grows might well translate into broader, more inclusive policies that guide the state well into the future.

Some samples of how that could play out:

Socially: Curbing sprawl is vital to urban revitalization, which means not just Baltimore, but every traditional small town and place like Salisbury that is struggling to rebuild.

Fiscally: Sprawl almost always results in higher taxes than compact development because it requires the helter-skelter -Z extension of utilities and government services, from ambulance and police, to schools. Added highway construction costs rise into the billions.

Additionally, population centers already have billions, statewide, in paid-for infrastructure. For sewage treatment alone, we have 40 percent excess capacity in such places.

Economic development: Accommodating population growth while restricting where it can go will mean allowing more creative, denser and rapid development in areas where it is desired.

While it won't be simple, this could be a golden opportunity for environmental and economic interests to finally cooperate on removing impediments to development.

Ultimately, for growth to be effectively repatterned, an increasing number of experts think more regional cooperation and revenue-sharing arrangements are a must.

With more equitable revenue sharing, for example, every county would not have to fight desperately to provide variety of development, from apartments to industrial parks. It could go where it made the most sense, economically and environmentally, and all jurisdictions would benefit.

Other interests, almost too numerous to mention, would also gain from more directed and compact growth -- historic preservation, agriculture and timbering come immediately to mind.

The bottom line is that the state's interest in changing the way it grows is so broad that the environment ideally will be submerged as just one of many, many beneficiaries.

This has already begun in "cutting-edge" Wicomico County, where business and economic leaders are embracing what was formerly the environmental agenda, in the name of ensuring a sustainable future for their area's orderly development.

All the above, of course, can't happen in the next legislative session, but an effective start has to be made. It is already late.

Another million people will move here in the next few decades, but Maryland already has five times more land zoned to accommodate them than it needs.

With that broad a target, it is currently all but impossible to control where growth goes; and even with the laudable resolve in Wicomico and Dorchester, it will be hard for the counties to hold the line.

The fact is, a huge and pervasive industry has grown up around land -- around its sale, resale, survey, development, subdivision, zoning, landscaping, ad infinitum; and though most of that could do fine with better growth management, it is profitable under the status quo, and is powerfully resistant to change.

The important thing is not just that the governor make something happen this year, but also that it is seen as the first step toward broader ends -- that speak not only to saving the bay, but to quality of life, fiscal sensibility, social goals, economic opportunity and equity sharing.

Pub Date: 9/13/96

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