Managing the impacts of growth has long been a part of the Chesapeake Bay restoration effort, going all the way back to the 1987 Bay Agreement, where a section is devoted to population growth and development. A number of steps were made to give life to this commitment and to recognize the key role of local governments in achieving it at the October meeting of the Chesapeake Executive Council in Harrisburg. There, the Council adopted both a Local Government Participation Action Plan and a set of Priorities for Land, Growth and Stewardship in the Chesapeake Basin.
But all this is not in a vacuum. In fact, there is a level of activity on these issues right now in the watershed which I believe is unprecedented. The most far-reaching effort has been undertaken by Maryland's Gov. Parris Glendening, who put out a call for ideas to encourage neighborhood conservation and "smart growth." By the time these were gathered and arranged, they comprised a book with more than 100 innovative approaches. The book was distributed for public review and comment, and the governor's staff is putting the finishing touches on a set of actions which will be both executive and legislative.
The book, available from the Maryland Office of Planning, is a fascinating read. Some of the ideas are old but still ripe for action; these include the "brownfields" concept - to encourage the location of industry in already developed areas which, in many cases, are underused and have existing services. Another proposal in this category is to focus state infrastructure investments - roads, schools, sewers, etc. - on existing urbanized areas, rather than encouraging or rewarding sprawl into new areas.
Other ideas are new and intriguing, such as supporting the development of micro-enterprises in neighborhoods by helping to set up would-be entrepreneurs; this is an approach that has worked in the developing world in places as diverse as Peru and West Africa - so why not here? Or supporting the development of ethnic centers in neighborhoods to attract tourists and investment. Or encouraging home ownership near employment centers so you can live near where you work. Remember, zoning dates back nearly a century, when living near factories was not a pleasant experience; the environmental revolution has made that underlying assumption of zoning to separate uses no longer a given in many places.
Some of the proposals are quite modest - to promote, with the real estate industry, the residential and commercial advantages of existing communities; to install and repair sidewalks in older neighborhoods; to enact a septic tank fee to pay for annual inspections by local government.
Others would require real political will and consensus, such as taxing land at a substantially higher rate than improvements (to encourage fixing up old properties and to develop vacant land in urban areas). Or to establish a statewide protection of rural areas and allow higher densities in urbanizing areas. Or to lay out enforceable urban growth boundaries, as has been done with considerable success by Oregon and Vermont.
Folks are already at work testing and debating the concepts underlying some of the more far-reaching proposals. For example, the Maryland Economic Growth, Resource Protection and Planning Commission held a recent conference calling in national experts to discuss how to go about developing a statewide program of development rights transfers, a concept that has, to date, been applied almost exclusively at the local level.
All this effort will have the backing of a new coalition of environmental and community groups and architecture and development firms who have announced the formation of "1,000 Friends of Maryland." Claiming to represent 200,000 Marylanders who are committed to focusing growth on existing urban centers, the group is patterned after highly successful efforts in Florida and Oregon, and promises to be a major player in the ongoing discussions and reaction to the forthcoming recommendations of the governor.
There is also activity on the growth management front in other parts of the Bay Region. Discussions in Pennsylvania over the role of local governments in dealing with issues of growth have risen to a level not seen in years. At a November conference in Harrisburg, Governor Tom Ridge stated that, "The environmental debate of the next century will be about how we use our land." The conference, titled "A Region at Risk," focused on the eight counties of the lower Susquehanna and their 318 municipalities. Nearly 500 people sought to attend, and 200 had to be turned away for lack of space. Another session of the conference has been scheduled for Dec. 9 at the Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster.
Speakers and other participants tried to deal with the very difficult problem of managing growth and sprawl in a state where small, local government units have traditionally exercised nearly all powers over land use and change, and where the forces of development are becoming more regional in scope. Since 1950, Pennsylvania has lost farmland acreage equivalent to all of Connecticut and Rhode Island.
One interesting angle the conference took was to identify the inefficiencies of so many small governments providing the same services. One example was that there were 22 police chiefs with combined salaries of $880,000 serving a total of 225,000 people within a 10-mile radius of downtown Harrisburg. Saving money can be one way to approach citizens on the value ofcooperation and even consolidation of local government functions, and high on the list is working together to manage growth.
You might ask how all this will benefit the Bay. The answer has many parts. More than anything else, the Chesapeake suffers from an oversupply of nutrients. These come from a number of sources - agriculture, sewage treatment plants, septic tanks and automobile exhaust to name some of the most serious. Reducing the loadings is easier from some sources - agriculture and treatment plants - than from others.
Forests are nature's best way of absorbing nutrients. But the forests are being lost to development directly and to agriculture displaced by development. So the less agricultural land we consume, the less we become dependent on our cars to take us everywhere. And, the more of us on treatment plants instead of septic tanks, the better off the Bay will be.
On the whole, recent actions related to growth management look favorable. But there is a long way to go to turn around attitudes and misconceptions. The "BOO of the Month" has to go to Prince Georges County, Governor Glendening's home turf. There, the County Council acted recently to limit the number of new townhouses in favor of more single family, large lot development. This was done in the name of protecting land values for those who are already residents. But it was a step back for protecting open space, easing commutes, helping the Potomac River and the Chesapeake, and a lot of other things that the governor and other Marylanders are fighting for.
And the depth of the job ahead of us was perhaps best shown by the suburban Northern Virginia citizen leading a subdivision revolt against a builder who was daring to include a one-story house in the mix of models offered. Her point was that this would lower home values by attracting people such as retirees, and other folks unlike the families with children already there. Have we really gotten so far out of kilter that the best community is one that keeps Grandma from moving into the neighborhood? Surely, we can do better.