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Drawing the line on development

For anyone looking into why Maryland's 14-year-old campaign to reduce sprawl development has proved so ineffective, we present the learned members of the Anne Arundel County Council. Next week, they're scheduled to give a demonstration of how not to follow the growth restrictions advocated by their own constituents.

As long as anyone can remember, Route 214 (Central Avenue) has been the line of demarcation between the commercial development on Route 2 (Solomons Island Road) and the rural South County. Even as Edgewater saw new shopping centers, the South Colony residential development, and other construction projects spring up in recent years, the south side of Route 214 remained free of such ventures.

That may soon change because of the council's decision to rezone two parcels on the southwest corner of Routes 2 and 214 to allow commercial development as part of the county's comprehensive zoning process. On Monday, the council is expected to finalize that amendment, and the only thing standing in its way will be County Executive John R. Leopold's veto pen.

Such egregious spot zoning is not only a violation of the Anne Arundel County General Development Plan, but it runs counter to the subsidiary Edgewater Small Area Plan and the wishes of countless local residents who have advised the county on its "vision" of the future in recent years. The rezoning was also rejected by the county's planning department, where professional land use experts have been reviewing requests to rezone such properties since the General Development Plan was updated in 2009.

How does such a thing happen? In case after case, whether in Anne Arundel or any other county, the pattern is clear. County residents endorse a master plan for their county directing growth toward specific areas, and then elected officials grant exceptions and rezoning to developers with political clout and a history of campaign contributions.

Mr. Leopold may well veto the rezoning amendment — he's taken similar action in the West County and North County districts — but whether the veto will stand depends on whether he can find support from three council members. So far, only half his rezoning vetoes have held up.

The need for potential South County vetoes (the Route 214 decision is not the only candidate from the district for that dubious distinction) are particularly galling given the local communities' resistance to commercial development. A planned Target at Wayson's Corner that was actually permitted by existing zoning drew such a negative reaction that the project was scrapped and the land set aside permanently as open space several years ago.

Councilman Jerry Walker, whose district includes South County, and others who advocate for relaxing zoning restrictions can no doubt make the claim that only a small piece of land (slightly more than 9 acres in this case) is involved, or that it will generate jobs and economic development. Or they can dismiss opposition as the "NIMBY crowd" that opposes everything.

But rezoning can have a domino effect. If development is allowed to jump the Route 214 barrier, why not continue further south? Lawyers will be able to seek administrative rezoning by arguing that the neighborhood has changed. That's how a pattern of sprawl is seldom, if ever, interrupted, no matter how firm the local community's resolve.

It's not even easy to detect exactly who is involved in any particular rezoning, as property owners and investors can hide behind shell companies and limited liability partnerships. That makes it tough to connect the possible quid pro quo between campaign donations and rezoning decisions.

Advocates for smart growth — a philosophy of directing development toward cities and towns and away from pristine areas — have long argued that county master plans and the state's overall growth guidelines should be held sacrosanct. But local officials have vigorously opposed laws that might reduce their influence in land use decisions, playing on public fears that Annapolis would then be calling the shots.

What's happening in Anne Arundel demonstrates why local objections are misguided. If the General Development Plan is going to be ignored so routinely, how can county residents trust their local leaders to stand up to developers?

If growth is going to be channeled to areas that can best handle it; if Maryland's natural resources, including the Chesapeake Bay, are going to be conserved; and if taxpayer dollars spent on infrastructure like roads and sewer lines are to be used most efficiently, this haphazard approach to zoning can't be allowed to continue. Smart growth doesn't mean no growth — but it has to mean some restrictions apply.

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