Regional Planning Needed to Control Suburban Sprawl and Portland, Oregon is the Model

July 1996 / Abell Reports / Community Development, Environment

David Rusk, renowned urbanologist says regional “fair-share” low- and moderate- income housing, and regional tax base sharing, are needed to complement the land­ use planning effort in the region. “The Maryland General Assembly must lead.”

Sprawl is devouring the Baltimore area’s countryside. From 1960 to 1990 the region’s urbanized population grew 33 percent, but urbanized land expanded 170 percent. The Baltimore region is consuming land at five times the rate of population growth–more than twice the national ratio.

A recent study by the Maryland Office of Planning analyzed local land use plans in Baltimore’s six suburban counties. The state planning office cal­culated that local governments’ plans would currently permit another 480,000 to 500,000 housing units to be built and that three-quarters of the new homes would be built on large lots (typically, an acre or more). This appetite for spa­cious suburban development carries a heavy price in loss of farmland and forests, polluted air and water, and higher costs for roads, water and sewer lines, and other taxpayer-supported facilities to serve new, low-density development.

Today the region’s residents may enjoy weekend drives out into the farming country still found outside the Beltway. But tomorrow will be a dif­ferent day. What county governments call “rural zoning” still permits plenty of development. Howard County’s “ru­ral zoning” would allow one new housing unit about every four acres. “Rural­ restricted zoning” in Baltimore County and Carroll County would permit one new housing unit every 25 acres. Such standards promote the dividing up of the land into lots that are too big to mow, but too small to hoe. Such government policies encourage creation of new, spacious estates for wealthy “hobby farmers” but will not help preserve Maryland’s agriculture economy–nor Baltimorean’s enjoyment of it.

In sharp contrast to the Baltimore area, Oregon’s growth management laws provide strong protections for farmlands in the Portland metro area. Under Oregon law, lands designated for “exclusive farm use” must be main­tained in minimum 67-acre parcels, and they must be actively farmed and pro­ duce at least $80,000 in annual revenue. If a farmowner proposes to put up a house, he must demonstrate that building that house is essential to his ability to work the land.

Many Marylanders decry the impact of sprawl upon Maryland’s vanishing farmlands and wild areas and on its quality of life.