Here's how Cleveland L. Rippons, the mayor of Cambridge, justified his support for a huge housing development near his little Eastern Shore city: "If you have gone from 12,500 people in 1960 to 11,000 residents today, I would stipulate you would require some kind of stimulus. How can you say we're growing too fast when you see that population loss?"
Of course, no one is saying Cambridge is growing too fast -- yet. So the second part of the mayor's statement is disingenuous. (You'll see why in a minute.)
That's not the part that impressed me. It was the first sentence -- and the assumptions that support it: That population loss in a rural area is a bad thing, and that growth is necessary as a countermeasure.
Somewhere along the line, somebody decided that every county, small city and village needed economic development, a shot in the arm, a boost, a stimulant, or a Wal-Mart. Men and women with degrees in business administration and marketing descended upon rural jurisdictions with promises to bring economic vitality to cow towns. A new generation of local politicians, just one cheap suit removed from the local business leaders club, promised "growth." They exploited the assumptions that have informed American progress, nonstop, since World War II -- bigger is better, new is better, more is better, more is more.
And standing still is death.
I would agree that those assumptions are valid along many avenues of modern life.
But not everywhere, and not all the time, and certainly not to the degree we're about to see on the Eastern Shore. Unless people of the Eastern Shore stage a mass revolt, or the next governor of Maryland injects some badly needed common sense into communities that used to have barrels of it, the nature and quality of life on the other side of the Chesapeake Bay are going to change forever, and not for the better.
Mayor Rippons points to Cambridge's loss of population with what comes across as urgency.
But, the way I look at this little piece of the world -- and I've been to Cambridge several times, once for a muskrat-skinning contest -- the loss of 1,500 residents over nearly a half-century is hardly a crisis.
Cambridge has had its ups and downs over the years. But it's still there, of course. It hasn't crumbled into the Choptank. There are still farms and farmers for miles around and, to the south, the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, a national treasure.
And yet Mayor Rippons and others apparently want to give Cambridge economic development, a shot in the arm, a boost, a stimulant.
There's nothing wrong with that. Returning Cambridge to its 1960 population peak is probably a reasonable goal.
But what Mayor Rippons and other local officials want to do is make Cambridge pretty much twice as big as it is today. They want it to add about 10,000 living, breathing, waste-producing humans in about 20 years.
Rippons and other city officials support, for one thing, the Blackwater Resort, which is scheduled to bring 2,700 new homes, a retail center, golf course, conference center, all practically next to the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. There are other scheduled developments, too, and Sun reporters who looked at growth projections on the Eastern Shore concluded that Cambridge is expecting a total of 6,600 new houses and condos.
With that kind of growth, whatever small-town quality Cambridge had will vanish forever. You'll be able to drive across the bridge, down U.S. 50 and arrive in yet another congested outer-exurb -- 10,000 new residents, lots of blacktop and storm water runoff, litter and fumes, and cookie-cutter houses in an area now revered for its natural beauty.
Just a few years ago, Maryland drew national attention with its Smart Growth initiatives, but the map is covered with examples of Dumb Growth just like this. Environmentally progressive? Sorry, we ain't all that.
It seems that local pols, lacking imagination and trapped in the old assumptions, hardly ever say no to development, even if the development changes the nature of the community it supposedly enhances. Cautiously allowing growth while preserving a community's identity -- that requires patience and thinking and a willingness to say no to every investor who wants to turn soybean fields into cul-de-sacs.
The state's population is growing too fast for these to remain just "local matters." Without intelligent planning, strong and consistent policy and a governor who pays more than lip service to Smart Growth and Critical Areas principles, we're going to continue to lose ground and leave one big mess for our children.
You change the nature of the Eastern Shore, you change the nature of life in Maryland. I've said it before: We've got this idea that jobs should be everywhere, housing should be everywhere, shopping malls everywhere, golf courses everywhere, modern life everywhere. Keep going like this and everything will soon be everywhere, and there won't be anything anywhere left.
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.