Carroll County stands up for sprawl

Who among us believes that sprawl — that is, the destruction of farms, forests and other open spaces to accommodate far-flung development coupled with the neglect and abandonment of older neighborhoods and urban centers — is a cost-effect, environmental-friendly and ultimately sound strategy for future growth in Maryland?

If you are raising your hand right now, you may well be sitting in the Pikesville Hilton where the Carroll County Board of Commissioners are today hosting a "summit" attacking Gov. Martin O'Malley's PlanMaryland initiative. The governor's much-maligned proposal attempts to put some heft in Maryland's well-intentioned but modestly effective smart growth policies of the past.

That rural counties are objecting to PlanMaryland comes as no surprise, but the shrill language of the attacks (the term "communism" has reared its ugly head) and the far-ranging nature of the objections — the denial of climate change is apparently a big item on the agenda — gives the whole campaign a circus-like atmosphere.

How exaggerated and bizarre has this protest gotten? Never mind that the commissioners authorized $10,000 to hold it, hired a conservative blogger to organize it, are charging $25 admission to the general public to attend, and have invited "experts" from the right-wing talk show circuit like Lord Christopher Monckton to offer comfort to like-minded contrarians. What's really wild is that the event has gotten so over-the-top that the Maryland Association of Counties, normally the most aggressive critics of PlanMaryland as representatives of local government in Annapolis, have declined to participate.

None of which should distract Marylanders from recognizing what's really at stake in the PlanMaryland debate. It's simply a question of how to accommodate a projected growth of 1 million more people in Maryland between now and 2035. If the patterns of the past are followed, that growth will mean development will consume more than 560,000 acres, the equivalent of Anne Arundel and Prince George's counties combined.

The governor's proposal does not tell Carroll, Frederick or any other county how to grow, but it does set some limits on how many state tax dollars will be funneled into public works projects that enable sprawl. Want to pave over all your green space? Don't expect the state to finance the roads, schools, and sewer systems needed to do so.

This is not some soft-headed, left-leaning, anti-rural strategy. It's just a matter of spending tax dollars a lot more wisely. Maryland already suffers from some of the worst commuting times in the nation (in large measure because people don't live near where they work) and is facing significant costs to clean up the Chesapeake Bay. The last thing either problem needs is for more housing subdivisions and strip shopping centers in the middle of farm fields.

We recognize some people living in rural states are feeling under siege right now. The recent decision to increase tolls, particularly at the Chesapeake Bay and Susquehanna River bridges, has sparked loud protests from the Eastern Shore and elsewhere. The governor's efforts to restrict new septic systems and a proposed increase in the gas tax and flush tax aren't playing well in rural communities either.

But those difficult financial decisions facing the state are arguments for why tax dollars need to be spent more efficiently, not for ignoring the cost of sprawl and an increasingly dispersed population. This is not an anti-growth strategy but an effort to promote sustainable growth and land-use decisions that won't destroy the quality of life that Maryland residents enjoy today.

Opponents can spend the day quibbling over how best to measure the greenhouse gases emitted by cars or exactly how much nitrogen spills out from septic systems into the local streams or how many conspiracies can dance on the head of a pin, but what they can't deny is that the state has a finite amount of land. Since 1973, the population has grown 39 percent, but development has grown 154 percent. That's just not a sustainable formula.

Directing growth toward the Baltimore-Washington corridor, where infrastructure like sewage treatment plants and mass transit systems is already available and where neighborhoods cry out for redevelopment, may not boost the tax rolls of the rural counties, but it's clearly in the interests of the state. Within each county, restricting growth to towns and higher-density areas makes sense, too.

The facts are undeniable. The land use policies of the past are not working. We can have a rational discussion of how best to reform these practices, or we can ignore reality in favor of talk-show bloviation and conspiracy theories. We believe a majority of people support the former, and that's why PlanMaryland would move the state in the proper direction.

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