When Pat Nielsen first visited her husband’s family farm in the 1970s, it was a quiet, rural Eastern Shore area where small towns were surrounded by farm fields, and the Chester River still had huge beds of underwater grasses.

The Bay Bridge, connecting Kent Island and Queen Anne’s County to Annapolis, had only begun to show its impact. But in the following years, development first trickled — then poured — into the small towns and fishing communities.

Concerned about the change, Nielsen and others formed the Chester River Association in 1986, which launched stream monitoring programs and organized “visioning” efforts so citizens could define the way their communities would grow.

But today, Nielsen sees the tide of growth washing those efforts away. Development is accelerating without regard for community vision. “Everywhere you look there are those little orange flags indicating that property is going to be for sale,” she said.

New shopping centers line major roads, and subdivisions with hundreds of homes are popping up, often right on the water’s edge. Underwater grass beds in the Chester have declined.

“On Kent Island, what were once classic Eastern Shore villages have become bedroom communities for commuters,” Nielsen said. “So much so that Queen Anne’s County is now considered to be a part of Baltimore’s statistical area.” One of several new developments in the works: a 1,350-house retirement community that will cover 562 acres bordering the Chester River.

What has happened there has been going on throughout the Bay watershed. New federal figures show that, on average, about 128,000 acres of the Bay watershed — or 200 square miles — were developed annually from 1992 to 1997.

The just-released numbers will serve as the baseline from which the Bay Program will measure its Chesapeake 2000 Agreement goal to reduce the rate of “harmful sprawl” 30 percent by 2012.

That would, in effect, restrict growth to about 90,000 acres a year — an area roughly twice the size of the District of Columbia.

“This is going to be quite a job,” said Bill Matuszeski, director of the EPA’s Chesapeake Bay Program Office.

Indeed. The new figures not only show that about 14 acres of rural land were lost each hour during the mid-1990s, but that what Nielsen observed in her area is widespread: The rate of development has dramatically accelerated.

In the 1980s, the figures show, only about 60,000 acres were being developed annually within the watershed. In other words, the rate of land development during the 1990s more than doubled the rate of the 1980s.

“We’re talking about turning around a very steep trend,” Matuszeski said.

So steep, in fact, that land development would take place at a rate 50 percent faster than what occurred during the mid-1980s even if the sprawl goal is met.

The anti-sprawl section was one of the most controversial portions of the Chesapeake 2000 Agreement, which was signed last June by the Chesapeake Executive Council. The council, which sets Bay cleanup priorities, includes the governors of Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania; the mayor of the District of Columbia; the EPA administrator; and the chairman of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, which represents the legislatures of the three states.

Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore, originally balked at the commitment, saying the state could not dictate how local governments choose to develop. Ultimately, though, he endorsed the pact.

When it was signed, the agreement was hailed as the nation’s first multistate commitment to curb sprawl. But until the newly released figures became available in February, no one could quantify what the 30 percent goal translated to in terms of acreage.

The land conversion figures came from the National Resource Inventory, a nationwide survey of land use released every five years by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. The inventory is a statistical sampling which takes land use information from thousands of specific sites in each state, then extrapolates it over a larger area.

The NRI was selected to measure the land change goal during negotiations on the Chesapeake 2000 Agreement because it was the only consistent land database for the entire watershed.

The goal applies only to the portions of the watershed within Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia, or about 37 million acres. As written, the 30 percent reduction would be applied to that whole area, not to each individual state.

The NRI figure of 128,000 acres of new development each year is higher than other estimates. Even the Chesapeake Bay Foundation — the group that suggested a land conversion goal be in the agreement — had estimated only 90,000 acres of change a year. The Bay Program used an even lower estimate of about 60,000 acres of development annually.

“I was surprised a little bit by how big the figures are,” said Lee Epstein, director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Lands Program. “It’s pretty significant.”

Part of the reason for the high NRI number is that it uses a broad definition of “developed lands” to identify areas that have been “permanently removed from the rural land base.” The NRI considers an area developed if it has five non-farm buildings along one side of a road within a half-mile stretch, or five buildings on both sides of a road within a quarter-mile.

“It counts the earliest signs of conversion on the rural/urban fringe,” Matuszeski said. He said such a low threshold is warranted because it signals growing pressure on resource lands, such as farms and forests, and captures the increasing number of large-lot subdivisions that some surveys miss.

The measurable 30 percent goal means the Bay Program must for the first time grapple directly with the development issue, something first raised in its 1987 Bay Agreement.

“Whether it is 90,000 acres or 130,000 acres each year, we had better address the problem soon,” said Ann Swanson, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, which represents the legislatures of the three Bay states. “We need to couple our programs to grow smarter and more compact along with strong initiatives that permanently preserve a portion of the landscape. Achieving a 30 percent reduction in the rate of conversion won’t be easy. We need to launch our efforts right now.”

Sprawl has become an increasingly important state issue. Maryland has enacted “Smart Growth” legislation that requires counties to write plans that target development in designated growth areas. The state prioritizes its infrastructure spending in those areas.

Pennsylvania last year approved “Growing Smarter” legislation that changed state codes to make it easier for local governments to designate growth areas, and offered incentives for multiple jurisdictions to develop coordinated plans.

Virginia has failed to approve any comprehensive legislation dealing with sprawl. This year the legislature named a panel to study the issue and make recommendations for next year’s General Assembly.

Much of the job of achieving the goal, Matuszeski said, will rest not with states, but at the local level. “This is tied very closely with our work with local governments and watershed organizations,” he said. “A lot of changes are going to come as the result of local government initiatives related to low-impact development.”

Low-impact development stresses small lot sizes to protect open spaces, and uses innovative runoff control techniques to minimize impacts on local streams. He said that would not only slash the amount of land developed, but also reduce the impact from the 90,000 acres that would continue to be built upon.

“It’s not only reducing it to 90,000 acres, it is how those 90,000 acres are developed,” Matuszeski said.

Epstein agreed that more local-level emphasis was needed, especially the updating of local government planning and zoning ordinances. Often, he said, local governments zone land they intend to keep rural for one-acre lots, or larger. “If you have 1-acre yots, you are guaranteeing sprawl,” he said. “It’s just the opposite of where we need to be heading. But a lot of townships in Pennsylvania or rural counties in Virginia and Maryland just don’t have the staff capacity to analyze the problem and make the changes.”

Sprawl development is driven more by increased lot sizes than population. A CBF report released last year, “Land and the Chesapeake Bay,” found the rate of land consumption in the watershed exceeds the rate of population growth by almost 2.5 times.

Further fueling sprawl, the report said, is the abandonment of many urban areas, which pushes development pressure farther into the countryside. From 1987 to 1997, the population of Loudoun and Stafford counties in Virginia — both on the suburban fringe — increased by more than 70 percent, while the District of Columbia’s population declined by 17 percent and Richmond’s by 7.5 percent.

If the Bay region can turn the tide on growth, it will be running counter to a nationwide trend of rapid development around coastal cities.

A recent analysis by Daniel McGrath, of the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Great Cities Institute, concluded that the amount of land developed around the nation’s largest 20 coastal cities would increase 46 percent by 2025, based on existing trends.

Put another way, that would be new coastal developments nationwide equivalent to the New York, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco metropolitan areas. McGrath noted that the analysis didn’t calculate additional sprawl around smaller cities.

McGrath doubts the effectiveness of comprehensive planning by many local governments. He said development patterns in recent decades have shown a willingness by the public to evade such efforts by moving farther into the countryside — into areas where development isn’t an issue — and make longer commutes, relying on improved transportation systems.

“We’ve spread out farther, continuing to make the tradeoffs between urban amenities and the cheaper land that suburban locations provide because we have the means to do so, both in terms of wealth and technology,” McGrath said. “The private development industry will likely continue to take advantage of cheaper land opportunities at the urban fringe as it has since World War II, subsequently putting more farmland and open space at risk.”

Matuszeski agreed that for the Bay Program to succeed, it will require changes not only at the local level, but also in public attitudes that often drive development. “It is going to require changes in the market,” he said. “That is never easy.”

And in some places, it may be getting too late.

On Kent Island, the market has led to more subdivisions which creates demand for more shopping centers.

Although targeted “growth areas” will take the brunt of big new developments, Nielsen worries that their huge size will take a toll on community character, wildlife and adjacent waterways. “These are enormous projects, and they are going smack down in very sensitive areas,” she said.

“I understand that we have to accommodate some degree of growth and I accept that,” Nielsen said. “But how much is too much? How much has to happen before you don’t recognize where you live anymore? And places like Kent Island become gray blurs along the highway — someplace you pass through on your way to somewhere else?”