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Senator Threatens "The Stick" for Counties That Ignore Anti-Sprawl Law

Rural Counties Refuse to Follow Anti-Sprawl Law

Frederick county mapsThis starkly contrasting pair of maps reveals something troubling about Maryland’s efforts to reduce pollution into the Chesapeake Bay by limiting suburban sprawl.

The large green areas on the map at left are the farms and forests of Frederick County  that should be protected from large development projects under a 2012 law called the Sustainable Growth and Agricultural Preservation Act, according to the Maryland Department of Planning.

The law encourages growth in existing towns and areas to be served by sewer, and is designed to prevent construction of major housing projects in rural areas using outdated septic tank technology, which creates about 10 times more nitrogen water pollution for Chesapeake Bay tributaries.  In the map at right, however, most of Frederick County’s green areas have been stained lemon yellow (meaning open to large developments) on the Frederick County’s version of the planning map – meaning that the county doesn’t want to follow Maryland’s new guidelines for protecting farms and forests.

Maryland Planning Secretary Richard Hall recently presented these maps to a state senate committee to illustrate how two of the state’s fastest growing areas -- Frederick and Cecil counties -- have deliberately refused to follow the Sustainable Growth and Agricultural Preservation of 2012 (which is sometimes called the “septic bill.”)

“In those two counties, especially, they’ve essentially ignored the law, therefore allowing major subdivisions on septic systems almost across the whole rural part of the county,” Hall said.  “This, in effect, neutralizes any impact from the legislation.”

Several of the state’s other rural counties appear to be watching Frederick and Cecil counties, to see if they can get away with ignoring the new law. And Governor Martin O’Malley’s Administration is studying what, if anything, the state can do about it.

During the Jan. 23 hearing of the Education, Health, and Environment Committee, state Senator Joanne Benson of Prince George’s County said it is “unfair” that some counties appear to be flouting the law, while others (such as Prince George’s, Montgomery, and Baltimore counties) are working hard to creating planning maps that protect farmland and forests.

But it’s more than just unfair.  It’s also bad for the Chesapeake Bay.  Pollution from septic tanks and new developments are among the few kinds of pollution that are increasing in the Bay watershed.  And the “septic bill” is designed to stop as much as 1.1 million pounds of nitrogen pollution from flowing into Bay tributaries over the next 25 years by preventing the construction of 50,000 septic systems, according to state figures. The law encourages homes to be built on modern sewer and wastewater treatment systems.  The “septic bill” is also meant to prevent the loss of at least 100,000 acres of forest and farmland to suburban sprawl, which means more natural green filters for rainwater.  All this will help Maryland meet EPA pollution limits for the Chesapeake Bay and the Chesapeake Bay Clean Water Blueprint.

Frederick CountyThe “septic bill” will also help preserve the beauty and quality of life in rural areas.

One person who knows this is Pam Abramson, a Frederick County parent and activist (at far left in photo) who co-founded a local smart-growth group called RALE (Residents Against Landsdale Expansion).

On a recent morning, Abramson and co-founder Amy Reyes (at right in photo) drove out to Fingerboard Road in Frederick County, about an hour northwest of Baltimore.  She walked up to the edge of a farm with a beautiful farmhouse, old windill, red barn, and horses wearing blankets as they sniffed at snow in a bone-chilling wind.

At the edge of the field rose a sign reading, “Public Notice.” It announced the future site of an 1,100 home subdivision that Frederick County has approved right in the middle of these rolling fields fringed by oaks and elms.

Abramson was sad to look out at horses and rural beauty that may soon be gone.

“It’s going to desperately change the nature of our community,” Abramson said of all the development proposed for farmland in her county. “We’re going to become just like Montgomery County – a huge sprawling metropolis, with tons of homes, horrible traffic, and high taxes and overcrowded schools.”

Not if her county changes course and decides to follow (the “septic bill”).  This legislation would ensure that local residents like Abramson have sensible planning in their communities.

Unfortunately, Maryland Del. Michael McDermott of the Eastern Shore and 24 other co-sonspors have proposed ill-conceived legislation --House Bill 106 -- that would repeal the the Sustainable Growth and Agricultural Preservation Act.

One of the co-sonsors, Del. John Cluster of Baltimore County, said anti-sprawl efforts try to force people to live pedestrian friendly ways they don’t want.

“Everybody’s being pushed to, you know, sustainable communities,” Cluster said.  “They want to take the cars away, and they’ve got these bike trails. And everything is within one community….Actually, what’s going on is they are pushing everyone toward the urban areas.”
That’s a bit overstated.  In reality, most of the push is going the opposite direction. Although there was a pause during the recession, the long term trend across the country is that developments are pushing ever farther outward into rural areas, devouring farms, polluting streams, and replacing America’s iconic landscapes with a flood of beige subdivisions.

When places like Frederick County can’t make up their minds whether they are suburban or rural, they end up being both. And therefore, neither.

By Tom Pelton

Chesapeake Bay Foundation


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A similar situation exists in Charles County where a developer created Tier Map has been approved by the Planning Commission. This map replaces the map recommended by the Planning and Growth Management Staff. The developer created map has replaced most of Tier 4 with Tier 3, thereby enabling developers more opportunities to do what they do best - clear cut forests and loading up the current AC zoned areas with more cookie cutter subdivisions, each house on small 3 acre plots, which in most instances are too large to properly maintain (unless densely forested) and too small to "farm". More development in these areas will require road improvements and stormwater management practices, some of which will require taxpayer funding. IF the Charles County Commissioners approve this developer created Tier Map, it is likely that the Maryland Department of Planning will reject it and return it for revision.

It's sad. Money rules the world.

Great article. It pretty much why my family and I fled Frederick in 1998

Thanks for that information about Charles County, Cheryl. I did not know that.

You're right, Doug....Money is the fuel behind all of this poorly planned development. What's good for the developer and his or her allies financially may be terrible for all the rest of us, who must suffer from a diminished quality of life.

The developer created Tier Map was submitted by the Balanced Growth Initiative (BGI) in LaPlata. The lobbyist for the organization is former Maryland State Delegate and former Charles County Commissioner President Murray Levy. The BGI argues that the farmers in the county would suffer the loss of their "property rights" although the current rural/agricultural zoning remains at one house per 3 acres. In addition,the County Commissioners recently increased the number of dwelling units for a "minor" subdivision from five to seven. The BGI Tier Map approved by the Planning Commission and currently awaiting a vote by the County Commissioners DECREASES the Tier 4 areas, eliminates the AC zone, and INCREASES the Tier 3 areas. It is a Tier Map favorable to developers and with more houses, more roads, more traffic and thousands of gallons of additional groundwater withdrawals, the county will continue to lose its rural character, its forests and open spaces, and its groundwater supply will continue to decline. The MGS has warned that by 2030 Charles County could experience sporadic water supply shortages - yet the buildout continues unabated and thousands of more houses are in the queue. If the BGI created Tier Map is approved by the County Commissioners the county will resemble Prince George's and Montgomery counties in the future.

That's sad. We shouldn't stand for that.

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