Doors closing on Open Space Preservation: A land protection crisis exists in Maryland as the state's preservation program has not kept pace with development.


IN 1970, when Maryland launched its nationally acclaimed Program Open Space, its goal of preserving an acreage of public lands equal to that consumed by development seemed possible.

Twenty-six years later, such land covers only about 750,000 of Maryland's 6.3 million acres while development occupies roughly million.

State agricultural preservation efforts and those of private land trusts bring the total of protected lands in Maryland closer to 950,000 acres. But these statistics understate the crisis that is upon us.

Much of the protected total -- large forests in Western Maryland -- were in place long before 1970. And the bulk of land development has occurred in the last few decades.

Rising real estate prices and diversions of Open Space money are slowing land protection dramatically.

Meanwhile, people moving to Maryland -- about 1 million are expected to move here by 2020, as well as a half-million urban dwellers projected to move to the suburbs -- are taking up more space than ever.

They are building homes on lots that average a third larger than in 1985, and they are living fewer to a family. That means the likely 20 percent state population increase will translate into a 30 percent jump in the number of homes.

The upshot is that by 2020, nearly another tenth of the state or some half-million acres of farm and forest -- an area roughly the size of Baltimore County -- will be developed.

Even this does not convey the full impact, because development, especially the unplanned sprawl that currently predominates, doesn't occur in just "one-tenth" of the state and doesn't disenfranchise the natural resources of just one Baltimore County-sized chunk.

Rather, it fragments the entire Maryland landscape, with ruinous results.

"Fragmentation" has been mostly studied by ecologists

concerned with how the loss of forest land integrity affects songbirds. Without large, unbroken blocks of woodland for successful nesting and foraging, many species rapidly decline.

Fractured landscape

Ultimately, a landscape thoroughly fractured by development will just as surely decimate farming, timbering, hunting and other outdoor recreation -- and just make this an uglier, crummier state in which to live.

"Crummier" isn't very scientific; but think in terms of traffic congestion. Since 1980, as development sprawled across the landscape, the "VMT" or vehicle miles traveled by Marylanders rose nearly four times as fast as the population.

So it is high time for something like the Rural Legacy Program outlined last week as part of Gov. Parris N. Glendening's ambitious and welcome "Smart Growth" strategy aimed at limiting sprawl.

The debates in the next General Assembly session on future growth will make this perhaps the most important year of the decade for the environment.

Rural Legacy envisions using several hundred million dollars, raised largely through state bonds, to protect an additional 4 percent of Maryland -- some 264,000 acres -- during the next 15 years.

Governor's strategy

It would complement other portions of the governor's strategy that propose using the state's financing and capital improvement powers as incentive and disincentive for counties to keep growth from spreading across the countryside.

If successful, Rural Legacy would, around 2011, bring protected acreage in Maryland substantially closer to the 1970 goal of equaling developed land.

(That will mean about 40 percent of Maryland would then be either developed or legally protected from development. One can see the day most of the state will be one way or the other.)

The Rural Legacy proposal, developed principally by the Department of Natural Resources, is complicated, with important details still being discussed as the legislative session nears.

It involves much more than just a ratcheting up of state land protection, like Program Open Space and the Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation program. Both will continue to operate based on funds from the state's real estate transfer tax.

The Rural Legacy proposal's great strength -- and its complexity -- would come from targeting regions of the state. Current programs go parcel-by-parcel and serve every county.

Rural Legacy areas would be chosen based on:

Farmland and forestry values, quality of wildlife habitat, degree of threat from development.

The desires of local jurisdictions for protection, their strategies for carrying it out, and for controlling sprawl.

The possibilities of local and federal grants or other complementary land preservation programs.

Financing would require $4 million a year from the roughly $18 million a year that the state currently spends to acquire public lands under Program Open Space.

Bonds would rise

This money, to pay debt service on the general obligation bonds, would rise to $9 million a year. The bonds for land protection, which the legislature must authorize, would rise from $30 million a year to $55 million.

Making something like Rural Legacy work will take more cooperation among the environmental, farming and forestry communities than exists now. Environmentalists would give up money from Program Open Space that now goes into public land acquisition. Farmers have traditionally been skittish about growth management.

Many questions need to be asked about Rural Legacy. The program will protect land largely by purchasing easements that preclude development and require, in the case of farms, installation of first-rate pollution controls. Who will monitor all this, across what eventually will be a quarter-million acres? And who will pay for it?

Also, who will participate in deciding which areas are targeted for protection? Can a large government program move nimbly enough to consolidate large parcels of land at a fair price?

The legislators ought to scrutinize Rural Legacy carefully; but they should not take one eye off the fact that, with respect to the Maryland landscape, Rome is burning even as they fiddle.

Last week's column incorrectly stated that Virginia Gov. George Allen's term lasts two more years. He leaves office in January 1998. We regret the error.

Pub Date: 12/27/96

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