After decades of effort, the voluntary, collaborative approach to restoring the health and vitality of the Chesapeake Bay— the largest estuary in the United States—has not worked and, in fact, is failing. A diverse group of 57 senior scientists and policymakers have joined forces to save the Bay. This is our plan.
Land Use Threatens Chesapeake Bay and Quality of Life

Land Use Threatens Chesapeake Bay and Quality of Life

The facades inside Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium are emblazoned with the names of major battles including Iwo Jima, Coral Sea, Guadalcanal, Midway, and Normandy.

Our county and city office buildings also could be covered with  epic battles, of course not of military bravery and sacrifice, but over land use: Crystal Spring, Parkside Preserve, Rocky Gorge, Lofts at Eastport Landing, Monticello 2, The Enclave (Crofton), and the land that is now Quiet Waters Park and Beverly-Triton Nature Park.

Other than the increased intensity of agriculture, especially the huge growth in large chicken operations, nothing threatens the Chesapeake Bay, our air, and quality of life more than population growth and the accompanying sprawling development. In 1900, there were 4 million people in the watershed. From 1950 through 2019, the Bay watershed’s population more than doubled from 8 million to nearly 19 million, an increase of almost 6 million since the first Bay Agreement was signed in 1983.

Even if all new folks settled in developed urban areas, which they do not, the sheer numbers would increase pollutant loads from more sewerage, electrical consumption, auto, fertilizer, and chemical use, and pet waste. From 1990 to 2000, impervious surfaces increased at five times the rate of population growth, an astounding 41% increase to accommodate an 8% population increase.

This trend has continued as people leave urban areas like Baltimore City and settle in suburban and rural areas so that more land and homes are developed per capita.

Polluted stormwater nitrogen runoff from developed lands has increased since the Bay states were required by EPA to significantly reduce this pollutant. The cumulative impact of centuries of population growth and the replacement of forests and wetlands with farms and developed impervious surfaces has taken its toll. Nearly every environmental problem has at its roots population growth and its huge footprint on our natural areas critical for water and air quality and wildlife.

The Chesapeake Bay watershed was once 95% forested, now reduced by 40%. Two-thirds of the wetlands have been converted to farmland or development. These forests and wetlands are crucial for water and air quality. The extremists are not those who fight to protect these natural areas but rather those who would develop them.

Smart Growth is not working.

After 50 years of environmental advocacy, I can state unequivocally that the most abused power in the U.S. is the authority over land use given local authorities. Through the centuries, too many local officials have been blinded by greed including campaign contributions, and in rarer cases, bribes, as well as by seeking development at any cost as a goal.

States have abetted this abuse of land by delegating most land-use decisions to local government and exacerbating the problem by setting up a system of welfare for these same local jurisdictions to pay much of the governmental costs linked to development.

Much of the cost for governmental services and infrastructure to pay for local land-use decisions comes from federal and state sources: new schools and the costs of running them; construction of and operating local libraries, construction and operation of highways, courthouses, jails, community colleges, and purchase of new parkland and recreational facilities and their operations; cost of police and fire services, public hospitals, drug abuse services, arts centers, and now, billions of dollars because of budget shortfalls related to the coronavirus.

This system means that local officials can make land use decisions with impunity that welcome more people, more development, more sprawl, and more destruction of natural systems like forests knowing the tab will be paid by others.

Nearly all state and federal officials will compete with one another at the public trough and brag how much money they secured for local infrastructure and services. This is the reverse of the way it should be—those making decisions causing the need for more services and taxes should pay for them.

Evidence of criminal abuse by those with land use levers at their command who have gone to prison during my adulthood: former Baltimore County Executive and Vice President of the U.S. Spiro Agnew; the first Anne Arundel County Executive, Joe Alton; and former Prince George’s County Executive Jack Johnson and his wife. One can see why citizens and true Smart Growth advocates are so frustrated.

I should note that this is a broad brush and there are many exceptions to the rule with some dedicated local elected officials and planning and zoning staff, including those I have worked with over the years.

But efforts to reform this system have been thwarted over the last 100 years as local governments jealously guard their local land use authority. The system needs to change or all Bay restoration efforts and efforts to protect our natural world will be reversed.

Gerald Winegrad

Gerald Winegrad represented the greater Annapolis area in the Legislature for 16 years, where he championed efforts to restore the Chesapeake Bay. He served on the tri-State Chesapeake Bay Commission and taught graduate courses in bay restoration and wildlife management he authored. Contact him at gwwabc@comcast.net.

 

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