The March 2000 issue of the Bay Journal contained a timely article on the central land use debate within the Bay Program: “Bay Partners split on policy for land conversion.” The question of limiting land conversion rates and associated issues have been part of land use and growth debates within most local governments in the Bay watershed for many years.

In the fastest growing jurisdictions, growth management quickly becomes a key issue in local elections and officials begin struggling early in their terms of office with how to concentrate growth in appropriate areas. No one understands better than local elected officials the many forces that affect local and regional land use patterns.

For these reasons, the local elected officials who serve on the board of directors for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments were surprised to see a specific limit on the rate of land conversion included in Chesapeake 2000. We assumed that the local officials responsible for land use policies would be consulted extensively before such a limit was proposed.

It was disturbing to read that the conversion goal was included as a last resort after every other strategy had been “swept off the table.”

Of even greater concern is the acknowledgement that the Bay Program does not have credible information on the current level of developed land or the existing rate of conversion. The estimates upon which the Executive Council is asked to base such an important policy are described as preliminary, and the experts use widely varying estimates of the acreage affected. The draft agreement suggests adopting a specific number, but the information needed to make such a momentous decision does not exist today.

Two other articles in the same issue highlight the differences between the states on the power over land use decisions given to local governments. For example, Virginia, a Dillon Rule state, limits the powers of local government more than Maryland.

Before setting a limit on land conversion rates, the Bay Program should conduct a thorough study of existing conditions with broad participation by local governments.

Some local governments have already adopted growth management policies, set aside land for preservation and restricted development to areas where infrastructure already exists. In these communities, a further restriction on land conversion may be unnecessary or even counterproductive.

In many areas, the policies necessary to change land conversion rates may already be in place, but the effect on land use patterns delayed until older subdivisions build out. In some places, population and employment growth within one region may require higher rates of conversion, while slower growing areas may see little change at all.

Of course, the importance of ensuring healthy local economies must be considered throughout the watershed.

The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments is calling for a two-year study of land use issues and land conversion rates before establishing a target for land use conversion in the Bay watershed. The study would:

  • Assemble data on existing land use and development rates;
  • Develop common definitions for land uses;
  • Examine the authority of local governments to limit land development; and
  • Develop the appropriate baseline against which any change should be measured.

If land use is key to the preservation and restoration of the Bay, it is worth taking the time to get it right.