What the Failure to Account for Growth Looks Like in Maryland

By Evan Isaacson, courtesy of Center for Progressive Reform

This post is part of an ongoing series on the midpoint assessment and long-term goals of the Chesapeake Bay cleanup effort.

In a recent post, I described the broad failure of Chesapeake Bay states to follow EPA's basic expectations to account for pollution growth under the restoration framework known as the Bay TMDL. This failure is one important contributor to the current state of the Bay restoration, which is years behind schedule. If states don't hold the line on new pollution by offsetting or otherwise accounting for growth, their jobs only become that much more difficult, and the final restoration of the Bay gets that much further out of reach. In this post and the next, I focus more closely on one state – Maryland – to examine how it responded to EPA's expectation to account for growth and demonstrate what a year of unchecked growth means for water quality in the state. 

Maryland's Historic Smart Growth Vision 

Maryland has earned its reputation as a pioneer in smart growth policy through the passage of a series of land use laws over the past several decades. The first of these laws, which served as the foundation for Maryland's smart growth vision, established a statewide map of "Priority Funding Areas" into which the state would steer funding and investment to avoid subsidizing development on increasingly scarce agricultural and natural areas. 

But after several decades, experts question whether Maryland's smart growth vision has successfully materialized. It is a difficult question to answer because it is impossible to know what would have happened in the absence of all of Maryland's smart growth laws, regulations, and policies. How much more sprawl would have occurred in this rapidly growing region? How many more acres of forests, wetlands, forested riparian buffers, and wildlife habitat would have been cleared for development? 

What we do know is that Maryland was losing its natural landscape at an astonishing rate in the mid-twentieth century. In the 1960s through the late 1970s, the state lost forested land at a rate of hundreds of thousands of acres per decade, according to federal estimates. This rate of forest loss tapered off through the 1980s and even reversed for almost a decade between the late 1980s and late 1990s. But by the turn of the century – ironically, just after the passage of the state's primary smart growth laws – the rate of forest loss began to surge again, hinting at a problem with the effectiveness or implementation of the laws. 

According to U.S. Forest Service estimates, between the late 1990s until the housing bubble burst, Maryland lost more than 10,000 acres of forest per year. That is the equivalent of an area the size of Baltimore City about every five years. And this level of habitat destruction is not expected to end any time soon. In fact, projections made by Maryland's Department of Planning, by the state-federal Chesapeake Bay Program Partnership, and by academic researchers all show a significant amount of forest conversion over the next several decades based on several independent analyses of demographic, economic, real estate, and other trends. 

Every year, the Maryland Department of Planning releases an annual report with an update on smart growth trends. The most recent report, which includes data for 2015, once again showed "mixed results," with some counties doing an excellent job steering new residential parcels into smart growth areas while other counties showed little or no ability to confine development into the areas they set aside for growth. The department concedes that, despite an uptick in the percentage of new residential development within smart growth areas since the housing bubble burst, the "long-term trend shows a decline." 

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