It is difficult to write about land use and growth management in the Chesapeake Bay Region without quickly losing one's sense of humor and getting preachy. But I am going to try nevertheless.
I think there is something afoot in the region on the issue of how and where we live. There is a change in the wind in attitudes and values, a sort of common realization that we cannot keep consuming land and demanding public investments in roads and other services without paying an unacceptable economic and environmental price. Data from the Maryland State Planning Office show, for example, that we are consuming twice the acreage per family with new development than we were just 20 years ago. Simple extrapolation of these numbers shows that it is only a matter of time before we begin a giant game of musical chairs among 15 million people to grab the last 10-acre ranchette site or the last waterfront lot.
This need not be. There is plenty of suitable land to accommodate any foreseeable population in the Chesapeake watershed, "carrying-capacity" gurus notwithstanding. The question is whether we have the intelligence, the widely held values and the political will to make it happen. There are some positive signs.
Last November, the Chesapeake Executive Council's annual meeting kicked off a two-day conference on land use, growth management and stewardship of our landscapes. From that conference, and a series of follow-up meetings with the public, a set of Guiding Principles for Growth Management in the Chesapeake Watershed has emerged. The draft principles are now out for review by the conference participants and will be considered for adoption at this year's Executive Council Meeting Oct. 10 in Harrisburg. That meeting will, in turn, begin another conference focusing on the role of local government in the Bay's restoration. And one of the major themes will be local land use management, which affects the rivers and streams and the Bay.
I hasten to add that all this activity has not produced anything earth-shaking - expect no Magna Carta for Saving the Bay. But what it has done is quietly built understanding and consensus around a few key principles - the need to focus development into built-up areas, to act with conservancies and others to protect important natural areas before development pressures arise, and to invest in making existing towns and cities more attractive places to live.
Many of these same themes were sounded and expanded upon by Gov. Parris Glendening in his June address to the Maryland Municipal League. The governor emphasized the need for economic growth, but noted that, "How we grow is critical. The answer largely depends on how well local governments manage growth, how well we use existing infrastructure, how well we conserve and reinvigorate our existing neighborhoods, and how often we stretch our imaginations and use our creativity to modernize and use what already exists instead of building something new."
He committed his administration to focusing investments on already built-up areas and recognized that attacking problems of crime and education in cities had to be part of the package. And he promised that by this fall, a plan for Neighborhood Conservation and Smart Growth will be in place.
Much is already under way in all the Bay states at the local level. The number of community-visioning exercises, heritage tourism activities, stream conservation and restoration groups, and similar efforts throughout the watershed is increasing at such a rate that it is difficult to keep track. These and other efforts are being identified as part of the Local Government Action Plan under development by a special task force established by the Executive Council for presentation at the October meeting.
Another part of the change is coming from the private sector. The Chesapeake Region is becoming a hotbed of "neo-traditionalism." This is an important new concept in the development community, and may be well-suited to our history and geography. The idea is to build new, large-scale subdivisions with an urban atmosphere, using such techniques as gridded streets, alleys with garages, small front yards and narrow side yards with sidewalks and trees, and stores within walking distance.
One of the first of these was Kentlands in Montgomery County, Md. Many other newer subdivisions are picking up elements of neo-traditionalism as they test the market interest. Even Consumers Report has devoted an article to the phenomenon.
There is quite a debate under way on the significance of neo-traditional development. Some say the market for this kind of community has always been there and folks were buying in standard subdivisions only because that's all there was. Other say it is a small "niche" market that will never amount to much. Others criticize the new style as a sterile and protected copy of town living that will never replicate the true diversity and eclectic nature of small towns.
I'd like to think of it more positively, as a sign of the beginning of a shift in values to a more Bay-friendly lifestyle, something that can be built on so that perhaps folks will start seeing our old villages and towns and open fields and forests with new eyes. After all, it was the image of detached homes with attached garages spread out on a sea of quarter-acre lots that captured people's imagination after World War II and held it for 50 years. Maybe we are really ready for a change in values to live more lightly on the land and to learn to love our cities and towns. Wouldn't that be wonderful? Or is it onlywishful thinking?
We'll only know with experience. And that brings me to one of the most interesting controversies over neo-traditional development. It involves Haymount, a "classic American small town" of 10,000 to 12,000 people to be built on the Rappahannock River near Fredericksburg, in Caroline County, Va. The houses are to be clustered on a grid of streets with occasional small commercial centers and higher densities interspersed. Two-thirds of the total land area will be preserved in forests. The community plan itself has been praised by nearly everyone.
The problem is the location. As there are only 21,000 people currently in the entire county, there is fear that this big, planned community will create overwhelming pressures for further development in surrounding areas and along Route 17 toward Fredericksburg. As a result, some environmental groups have opposed the project as inappropriate and are saying it would be better located in an areas already undergoing development.
I disagree. While in an ideal world, development of this scale should be located in urbanizing counties like Fairfax or Prince William, the reality is that it is often impossible. Citizens in many suburban Washington communities (with the vocal support of environmental groups, it must be noted) have opposed high-density development around Metro stations, where it makes all the sense in the world. The record of residents of urbanizing counties is consistently to oppose any development denser than what they already live in as inappropriate and a threat to their property values. Officials of Fairfax County at the Bay Program Conference last fall as much as said they were condemned by local politics to build their remaining developable lands at least the density of current development, regardless of the sense it made.
Under these circumstances, designs that reduce sprawl can expect to come up against resistance in urbanizing counties. But there is a critical role that neo-traditional communities could play in beginning to move people's values toward more efficient ways of using the land and conserving our existing communities. So I say let's get 'em built and show 'em off just about anywhere we can, and the sooner the better for the Bay.