State opts for dumb growth on the Shore


The $1 billion, 1,000-plus-acre mega-development planned near the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge on the Eastern Shore violates the spirit of two major initiatives marking Maryland as an environmentally progressive state - the Chesapeake Bay Critical Area Protection Program and Smart Growth - but apparently the Republican governor and a Democrat who wants to unseat him think it's fine. Only one major gubernatorial candidate, Doug Duncan, the Democratic Montgomery County executive, has had the guts to oppose it.

What we have in this story are questions all Marylanders who give a lick about the quality of life in this state must answer: Do you want true protection of the critical areas around the Chesapeake Bay, or do you want public officials to keep making exceptions for developers? Are you willing to give the state the teeth and muscle necessary to keep local officials from making decisions that almost always seem to favor fast and dumb growth over moderate and smart growth?

Politicians assume environmental issues are way down the list of priorities for voters in this state. But citizen uprisings in Carroll, Harford, Allegany and Dorchester counties, to note a few recent examples, give every indication that control of growth might be a sleeper issue statewide.

That's not some wishful thinking on the part of what the lawyer for the Blackwater Resort ridiculed as "Birkenstock knuckleheads" in a February article in The Washington Post.

Congested roads, crowded schools, suburban sprawl, the loss of open space and farmland, degradation of natural waterways, population growth estimated at 100,000 per year - all of this is leading to a tipping point in our long, uneven effort to preserve the quality of life in the Chesapeake region.

It's abundantly clear that without some sort of consistent and enforceable policy from the state government, starting with the chief executive, we're going to leave one big mess for our children. Without centralized decisions about where development takes place and how, we're going to ruin what's left of a good thing.

Those who support the Blackwater development say it's the business of nobody but the people of Cambridge. The mayor thinks that adding another 2,700 homes and thousands of more residents and vehicles and sewage to an isolated agricultural and wetlands area between the city and the wildlife refuge is a good thing, a real bonanza.

Nobody seems to want to stop and ask tough questions: Do all rural and agricultural jurisdictions in this state need to become suburban ones? Why do we always assume that growth everywhere is inevitable and good, even if it changes the nature of the area it supposedly enhances?

In March, state senators had a chance to force a drastic change in the Blackwater plans but, heavily schmoozed (to the tune of $125,000 in lobbyist fees, paid by the developer, according to state records), they deferred to their colleagues from the Eastern Shore and local decision-making.

In a Sun article about Blackwater, Gov. Robert Ehrlich said through a spokesman that he "has a great respect for local government to make their own decisions." There's leadership for you.

The man Ehrlich appointed as chairman of the Chesapeake Critical Area Commission, Martin G. Madden, testified against restrictions on the development, saying legislation aimed at Blackwater would also limit growth along tributaries that flow into four other wildlife refuges in Maryland. (To which one wanted to respond: "And what's wrong with that?")

Martin O'Malley, the mayor of Baltimore who wants to be governor, originally said he opposed the project's use of a designated "critical area" along the Little Blackwater River, but during a campaign visit to the Eastern Shore this month, he changed his tune and commended the Cambridge planning commission for reworking the project's design, according to the The Star Democrat in Easton.

That reworking only changed the scale of the project - it did not remove it from the 1,000-foot "critical area." The revised plan removes homes but still allows a conference center, hotel, golf course and retail complex within the 1,000-foot buffer.

The greater issue is the scope of the project and its location. What we have here is the epitome of dumb growth - essentially a new city on a stretch of land surrounded by farms and, a few miles away, the great wildlife refuge that many regard as a national treasure.

This kind of development should not be supported by the state; holding back funds - for new roads, schools, etc. - to local jurisdictions that violate Smart Growth guidelines is the only hammer the state has.

But during his June 6 visit to Cambridge, O'Malley said state and local governments need to "work together" on growth issues and that cutting off funding was not the answer, according to The Star Democrat.

Duncan, on the other hand, sent a letter to Ehrlich in February flat-out opposing the Blackwater project. "As a former mayor and current county executive, I respect local decision making authority," Duncan wrote. "However, this development has significant, statewide environmental implications that warrant state intervention. I am extremely concerned that your administration has already given approvals to this project, and your use of Smart Growth funding to support development in a resource conservation area is a complete subversion of the legislation's anti-sprawl intent."

Ehrlich never responded, according to Duncan's camp.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation has filed legal challenges to the project, and it is gathering signatures for a petition urging Ehrlich to oppose this big, dumb project. Officials of the foundation invite any citizen to sign it. They don't consider this a local issue. They're right.

To hear Dan Rodricks on the radio, tune in to WBAL (1090 AM) from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays.

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