What is missing from smart growth?
By: PHILIP W. HOON , Guest Comment 07/27/2004
As a result of state legislation enacted over recent years, the phrase "smart growth" has now become part of our land use and development lexicon. Citizens and elected officials of small towns on the Eastern Shore should be warned and wary, however, of that principle being advocated and misapplied as a tool for justifying excessive, and therefore improper, residential growth.
The current "smart growth" regulations imposed by state law address the location of new development, not its quantity. Therefore, "smart" towns should review and revise their local land use regulations as needed to assure that the amount of residential growth is appropriate and in the town's best interests.
It is true that the smart growth legislation was well intentioned to direct development pressures away from rural areas and into existing towns. What is missing from Maryland's smart growth regulations, however, is an articulation of and limitation upon the amount of residential growth that can and should be absorbed by (and perhaps more particularly around) the towns.
That is properly a local decision so that it is up to each town to decide how much growth it wants. The town can then apply that threshold to development proposals it receives through the enactment of appropriate legislation, and to its consideration of proposals for the annexation of additional lands.
The problems and effects of virtually uncontrolled residential growth in and around some small towns are readily apparent. Middletown, Del., was once a charming small town akin to its Eastern Shore neighbors. But it did not impose any effective limits on residential development. As a result, its former character is now unrecognizable so it could be "Anysuburbia, USA."
Centreville is also now paying the price for its failure to manage its residential growth because of the failure of its wastewater treatment plant. One can only imagine the chagrin its citizens feel with the knowledge that collective failure has contributed to the Corsica River's decline.
It has been suggested that the traffic congestion in and around Easton is the worst it has ever been. Consider that in the context of the number of new homes built in that area over the last five years.
An article in The Washington Post recently reported about a number of Eastern Shore towns that are now targeted for an explosion of residential growth, the market for which is primarily baby boomer retirees. There are proposals for a 2,217 (259 percent) population increase to Queenstown where there are now 617 townspeople. Likewise, with a current population of 1,125, Trappe is projected to grow 409 percent to 5,454 if current proposals are realized. A number of other towns are identified as targets for expansion that will more than double their size in a short period.
The growth of a town can be like that of a tree. A tree has a natural growth rate that can be expected given normal circumstances. However, more rapid growth of the tree can be accomplished with aggressive fertilization. The problem is when that happens, sometimes the tree actually grows too fast. It then becomes weak in its trunk and limbs so it is more vulnerable to storms and other stresses that a more normal tree could withstand.
As illustrated in Centreville, the excessive residential expansion of a town which dramatically exceeds its natural growth rate can also cause future stresses and problems.
The Post article also reported the comment of a senior demographer with the U.S. Department of Agriculture that he could think of only two counties (both in Florida) where the growth from retirees was so extreme as to double the population. The current trends on the Eastern Shore are uncharted waters with a very real margin of error as evidenced by the Easton experience.
What is the proper amount of growth for a town? That is a valid question that should be addressed both in terms of a town's past, its current condition and its hopes for the future. It is obvious, and without serious debate, that a town of 3,000 people that rapidly expands by quadrupling its population to 12,000 is no longer the small town that it was. It simply cannot be.
The unfettered expansion of a small town can be a Catch 22. It is the small town quality of life that is desirable to those outsiders who want to live there. That interest in turn fuels the developers' proposals. But small town character is destroyed when it is no longer a small town because of an extreme population increase.
After a certain amount of growth, a town loses its essential quality of life. When that happens, all of its residents - the natives and the newcomers - lose that sought after small-town character, forever.
In light of the current trend, as part of their planning process it would be wise and prudent for small Shore towns to specifically identify in advance how much residential growth they expect, want and will tolerate and approve. How about an annual growth rate of 5 percent? That is probably greater than the national increase in population. Yet even such a modest growth rate will double a town's size in 20 years.
Towns also should be wary of the perceived (as a result of developer persuasion) economic benefits of growth in terms of property values and otherwise. Even if there might be some new jobs created, what about other impacts? In the Post article, J.O.K. Walsh, the Economic Development Corporation for Caroline County, addresses the potential political realities of excessive residential growth as causing a new, different electorate: "The first thing they're going to do is take over the town government. And the second thing they'll do is take over the county government." That too can contribute to the loss of small town character.
Towns like Trappe and Queenstown are lucky and unique because they have the chance to control residential growth before it is too late. But it is incumbent upon citizens and elected officials who want to maintain their town's unique character and quality of life to define the amount of growth they want and to tailor land use regulations accordingly.
Those small Shore towns that have not already been assaulted by excessive residential development should be warned and advised. It is far easier to preserve the town's character by proper planning before the developers come knocking at the door. Ben Franklin was wise and correct - "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure."
Mr. Hoon is the principal of Hoon & Associates, LLC, a law firm in Chestertown. He has participated in numerous land use matters on the Eastern Shore. His e-mail address is: firstname.lastname@example.org.
©The Star Democrat 2004
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