(Posted by Bob Gallagher.)
The top two sources of pollution in the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries are runoff from agriculture and urban and suburban development. On the Western Shore of Maryland, where I live, the biggest source is development.
The principles of managed growth or smart growth can reduce the polluting effects of development by concentrating development where infrastructure can eliminate, reduce or mitigate their effects. For example, modern waste water treatment results in far less pollution than septic systems do. Building in areas that have excess capacity of schools and roads also reduces pollution. And, prohibiting development in wetlands, flood plains and other sensitive areas protects bay water quality.
In Maryland, and in most states, the land-use decisions necessary to implement smart growth are made by local officials with little interference from the state or federal governments. The rationale is that local officials are better informed about local needs and local conditions. You don’t have to look far to see that this system hasn’t worked. Congested roads running through miles of strip malls and outcroppings of McMansions in the middle of farm fields are ubiquitous symbols of mismanaged growth. Local officials have proved themselves unable to resist the supplications of special interests to the detriment of the public interest.
My home county, Anne Arundel, illustrates the point. Periodically, the county goes through a process called “comprehensive rezoning.” Citizens are invited to apply for rezoning of specific properties by a certain date. The Office of Planning and Zoning reviews the applications for compliance with zoning rules including consistency with Small Area Plans (SAPs) and the General Development Plan (GDP), which were developed over a period of years with extensive citizen participation. The applications approved by Planning and Zoning are incorporated into a bill submitted for passage by the Anne Arundel County Council. The public has access to the applications and to the recommendations of Planning and Zoning. The public has the opportunity to comment to Planning and Zoning and to the Council before the Council votes on the bill. That sounds like a pretty good process, right?
But, before the bill is passed, each council member has the opportunity to offer amendments that change the zoning of specific properties whether or not they were included in the bill. Some council members accept applications filed after the deadline. In some cases the public has no access to the application. Often Planning and Zoning has insufficient time to review them. In many instances the public has no opportunity to provide comments to either Planning and Zoning or to the council. In many cases, the council has approved an amendment notwithstanding the fact that Planning and Zoning has determined that the amendment violates zoning rules and is inconsistent with the SAP and GDP. In most of those cases, the council member sponsoring the amendment offers no evidence of consistency with the established development plans and justifies his action by stating that some unidentified members of the community have voiced their support for it, ignoring the extensive public input embodied by the plans.
Following a practice euphemistically called “councilmanic courtesy,” most members of the council vote in favor of any amendment sponsored by a member in whose district the subject property is located, thus delegating rezoning authority to a single council member.
In our county, most members of the council don’t see much wrong with such a system. “We have always done it this way, why change now?”, they say. They certainly show no inclination to support meaningful reform of the amendment process or to limit councilmanic courtesy. So far this year, the Council has adopted scores of zoning amendments. Virtually all are “up-zoning.” Most are inconsistent with the SAPs and GDP. The amendments result in multimillion dollar windfalls to owners and developers and multimillion dollar deferred liabilities to taxpayers in future environmental cleanup costs.
Any change to the system will probably have to come at the instigation of the state. The state should require that local zoning decisions meet tougher standards for transparency and public participation. Recent changes to state law require that zoning changes be consistent with GDPs. That requirement should be enforced by state revocation of local zoning authority where it is demonstrated that local zoning decisions do not comply with GDPs or do not comply with other zoning rules.
Such changes won’t come easily. It is an unusual event when any legislation passes the Maryland General Assembly over the objection of the powerful trade associations that represent the interests of county and municipal officials. In any effort to limit local authority over land use matters the local officials can count on vigorous lobbying and financial support from the organizations that represent builders and developers. Each of these groups has offices near the Maryland state Capitol, extensive relationships with legislators and lots of money to spread around. It will take a coordinated campaign of environmental and good government groups, founded on an intensive grassroots effort, to get the job done.
The time to start is now.