WYE MILLS -- A leading conservation group is calling on six Eastern Shore counties to buy more land to protect it from sprawling development that is gobbling up farm fields -- growth that could bring 160,000 new residents in the next quarter-century.
In a report released yesterday, the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy urged the Upper Shore counties of Dorchester, Talbot, Caroline, Queen Anne's, Kent and Cecil to redouble efforts to preserve more than 578,000 acres, about 900 square miles of farm and forest land.
"With the unprecedented growth we're facing now, we have to get out ahead of the curve," said Robert L. Etgen, the land conservancy's executive director. "Our whole focus is to be proactive to maintain our rural, agrarian, maritime lifestyle."
The breakneck pace of development has prompted predictions of 70,000 new homes in the region, which has maintained its rural character for nearly 400 years.
Conservancy officials called for a regional transportation plan by 2010 that could include ferries or rail transportation, but the group is opposed to a third bridge spanning the Chesapeake Bay. "Another span would bring irreparable changes to the farms, historic communities and rural way of life on the Shore," the report said."
Although the counties are about halfway to meeting land set-aside goals established by the conservancy five years ago, none seems likely to meet its goal by 2010, according to the 16-page report, "The State of Growth on Maryland's Eastern Shore."
The shortfall would amount to 178 square miles -- something like a mile-wide swath running through the entire Delmarva Peninsula.
If current trends continue, state planners predict a 38 percent growth rate until 2030, much of it spurred by homebuyers attracted by the Shore's less-expensive housing.
Dire predictions about growth prompted the conservancy to update a four-point outline it created in 2002. The nonprofit group is now calling on town and county governments to set aside 1.5 percent of their annual operating budgets to buy land or permanent easements.
The report also urges local governments to direct at least 80 percent of future development into locally designated growth areas.
"Our county leads the shore in preserved land," said Eric S. Wargotz, president of the Queen Anne's County Commission. "We thought that this updated version was a little aggressive, but that seems like the best approach. We've already signed on [to the conservancy's regional land protection agreement] with no reservations."
Each county's economic development plan must be broadened to strengthen the region's traditional industries of farming, forestry and fisheries, according to the report.
The region must also guide 80 percent of county and municipal development into growth areas by establishing maximum annual growth rates and adding work-force housing in each local comprehensive plan, the report says.
It also says that economic development ought to focus on the traditional industries of agriculture, fisheries and forestry.
Of the six counties, two -- Talbot and Dorchester -- have balked at signing the land protection agreement, Etgen said.