Editor's note: This is the seventh installment in "Growing Concern," an occassional series of articles in the Bay Journal that examine the impact of economic and population growth on Chesapeake restoration efforts.

In the spring of 2006, a self-proclaimed “unholy alliance” of developers, environmentalists, civic and academic leaders staged a series of reality checks around Maryland during conferences designed to stare future growth in the face.

The leaders gave each table of eight to 10 participants piles of colored Legos representing their likely share of the 1.5 million new residents projected to swell the state’s population from 5.5 million to 7 million by 2030. It would mean adding more than half a million new homes.

On a map of their region, each table had to place all of that new growth into what is already the nation’s fifth most densely populated state.

The idea was not to discourage growth. Maryland, like most states, avidly courts economic expansion, more jobs, more people. The Reality Check conference organizers hoped to promote “smart growth,” or to place as many Legos as possible around places where growth was planned and roads and sewers already existed, thus protecting farms, forests and undeveloped Bay shorelines.

It was nonetheless a sobering exercise as Legos piled higher and existing towns began looking like little Manhattans. You could hear sighs and mutterings: “The traffic’s already hell there” or “my pile fell over…there goes the countryside.”

An Eastern Shore contingent built a paper boat and set their Legos sailing toward Baltimore, which has been losing population since the 1950s. It was a good laugh — maybe a good idea — but the directive was firm: Growth is coming your way and you must accommodate it.

But at the Southern Maryland table, a Calvert County commissioner, Linda L. Kelley, chose to differ. She swept a bunch of Legos off the map and into her purse. And it was no futile exercise like barging people across the Bay to Baltimore.

Alone among all the jurisdictions in Maryland and the Chesapeake watershed, Calvert County had taken actions—downzoning most of the county, twice—explicitly to reduce its projected growth by nearly a third.

Concerned by the flood of Washington, DC, area commuters flocking to its rural landscapes, Kelley and the other commissioners in the mid-1990s had county planners do a “buildout analysis” that looked at how much growth could occur under existing zoning ordinances, and what would be the consequences.

“It shocked a lot of people,” recalled Jenny Plummer-Welker, a county planner in Calvert since 1994. The population would have more than doubled, and additional schools and highways would have meant significant tax increases.

Letters explaining this were mailed to residents. “We got more than 2,000 returns, overwhelmingly against (the growth),” Plummer-Welker said, “so the commissioners felt they had the backing to act.”

The downzoning enacted in 1997 by the majority Republican commissioners proved not restrictive enough, and was followed by another reduction in allowable building lots in 2003. This brought the county’s ultimate number of residences to about 37,000, from about 54,000 allowed by pre-1997 zoning. The county currently has around 34,000 residences.

Until it actually reaches its new, lowered buildout limit, the jury will be out on the full success of Calvert County’s singular attempt to hold the line. But it’s worth examining how Maryland’s littlest county took the course it did, given the uncritical acceptance across much of the Chesapeake region that endless growth is necessary, or inevitable.

Calvert is a stringbean of a county, a skinny peninsula dangling its whole, 35-mile length between the Chesapeake Bay and the Patuxent River, incised by dozens of creeks. No spot in the county is much more than four miles from tidewater.

Colonized for close to four centuries, its population was remarkably stable from the American Revolution to the end of World War II. Since then, it has risen about ninefold, taking a toll on the county’s traditions. A 1997 University of Maryland “sense of place” study found Calvert’s historically rich seafood industry so depleted that researchers had to dip into neighboring St. Mary’s County to find enough watermen to interview.

One unbroken and important link to Calvert’s rural heritage that has remained since 1924, when he was born and the population was 9,500, is former county commissioner and state Sen. Bernard Fowler. Best known nowadays for his annual wade-in to raise awareness of his beloved and polluted Patuxent, Fowler also pushed through a moratorium on all new subdivisions in Calvert as a commissioner in the 1970s.

“It wasn’t easy, but we were building without much control,” he recalled. “The bridge connecting us to St. Mary’s County was in the planning, the main highway through the county was being dualized…you had to be an ostrich not to see the need for better planning for our future.”

He used a federal emergency manpower law to hire the county’s first land use planner at $60 a week. Aided by more than 400 citizen volunteers, Fowler and his colleagues met with 72 civic and church and business groups, as well as the county’s dominant landowners, the farmers, to sell them on Calvert’s first comprehensive growth plan. It was dubbed The Pleasant Peninsula Plan, and it focused on protecting the county’s rural quality of life.

He also hired a “bright young boy,” a fifth-generation native of the county named Greg Bowen, to work as a planner devising ways to protect farmland.

Bowen, now 59, recently retired from his post as planning director for the county. There’s been plenty of development since he was a kid, and some of it pretty bad; but a surprising amount of Calvert remains a rolling patchwork of small farms, woods, meadows and creeks draining down to the rich bottomlands along the Patuxent.

“Quality of life always influenced our planning,” Bowen said. With the buildout analysis in the 1990s, “we came to the recognition that we shouldn’t be the place where new major job development occurs…we’re not on a major highway, no rail, no major airport. We should put on the brakes and control residential growth. It worked. And that is good for the Bay and it will save the state millions in capital projects.”

Before the two downzonings in 1997 and 2003, he said, “we were on track to have 140,000 people; now it’s going to be closer to 100,000.”

A key to public acceptance of such limits to growth, he said, was something known in the planning world as TDRs, or transferable development rights. Bowen began developing these, securing backing from the agricultural community soon after Fowler appointed him.

A TDR program assigns a certain amount of “rights” to develop to each acre of land; and it requires anyone developing land to purchase a certain number of those rights for each residence they want to build.

So a farmer whose land has been downzoned by the county can sell development rights to builders in town centers where Calvert has determined more development would best serve

the county.

In actuality, it is more complex and has needed “tweaking” to make it work better many times over the decades, Bowen said; but it has endured, and “made the zoning changes a whole lot easier.”

TDR’s “open up a lot of interesting options,” Bowen said. For example, the county has been able to routinely “retire” development rights by purchasing them from landowners.

In another case several years ago, he said, a local nonprofit preservation group, a land trust, was able to outbid developers for a piece of prime farmland. The trust then sold the land’s development rights, sold the land back to the farmer, and sold a few building lots and “came out whole on the deal.”

“That showed everyone you could choose to not develop and retain equity.”

TDRs were key, he said, in protecting Parkers Creek, one of the county’s natural gems. A preserve of nearly 6 square miles of heavily forested land forms a green canyon around the creek, which spills its clean water to the Chesapeake. A 6-mile biking and hiking trail connects the preserve to downtown Prince Frederick.

“The county has several land trusts, and they would not be where they are today without TDRs,” said Karen Edgecomb, whose American Chestnut Land Trust manages 3,000 acres around Parkers Creek. “We’ve purchased more than 960 acres of land and the vast majority was financed by sales of the development rights to the county or to developers.”

For all the land preservation that has occurred, she and Bowen noted, it was economics that drove the decision to limit growth. “A number of studies showed that residential development just does not pay its way…it costs more in schools, roads, fire and police than it brings in from tax revenues,” Edgecomb said.

The TDR program, she said, could still use strengthening to better protect forestland; and in the recent recession the county has stopped most of its spending—once a million dollars annually—to retire development rights.

The question remains: What happens when the county reaches buildout—currently 3,000–4,000 residences away?

Plummer-Welker, the county planner, said Calvert was careful “not to bill it as a hard cap on growth; more as the goal.” Additionally, she noted, there is no cap on business development, just residential.

Bowen once characterized buildout as “like the speed of light, you may approach it, but you’ll never quite get there…just move slower and slower.” (Unlike the speed of light, Calvert’s growth limits could also be repealed by another board of commissioners, others have noted).

Richard Hall, Maryland’s secretary of state planning, said that “there may not be such a thing, literally, as buildout. Is New York City built out? Where there is development pressure, people are always going to find ways…denser, redevelopment.”

Hall’s department has calculated buildout for all of Maryland, looking at current zoning for all the state’s counties. Roughly, that zoning allows another 500,000 residences within areas designated as desired growth areas, where roads and sewers and homes already exist or are planned. It also allows another one million households on areas that are mostly farm and forestland, outside desired growth areas.

Given Maryland’s projected 500,000 new dwelling units—like adding a Hagerstown every year for the next 25 years, or a Salisbury every 10 months—there’s zoning to accommodate three times the state’s 25-year expectations.

And while there’s no push from state government for other counties to emulate Calvert’s substantial growth reduction, a recent water quality law passed by the state’s General Assembly has effectively downzoned much of rural Maryland.

Maryland’s new law forbidding any more major developments on septic tanks, which are the preferred waste treatment in rural areas, should reduce the number of building lots across the state by 50,000–70,000.

Other planning experts caution that growth eliminated from any single county like Calvert will likely just spill into nearby counties with looser land use protections, like Calvert’s neighbor, Charles County.

Gary Hodge, a former county commissioner in Charles, has said Calvert had the advantage of massive tax revenues from the Calvert Cliffs nuclear plant.

Indeed, Fowler recalled that the county’s entire budget was about $4 million in the 1970s when the nuclear plant began paying taxes: “When the first unit went online they sent us a check for $7 million, and when the second unit came along the check was $12.5 million (annually).”

Today, the plant’s $23.75 million in annual county taxes, remains significant—“we’re very lucky to have them,” said finance and budget official Tim Hayden. But it is only about 10 percent of the county’s 2014 general fund budget of $232.5 million.

Bowen said the number of people do make a difference. “When I was a kid we were told we lived on the second cleanest river in the Bay, and there were maybe 25,000 people living in the Patuxent’s whole (several county) watershed. Now there are more than 600,000.” The Patuxent, despite billions spent on sewage treatment plants and decades of study and state and federal and county efforts, is now one of the Bay’s more polluted rivers.