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Kaid Benfield’s Blog

The link between thriving towns and a sustainable rural landscape

Kaid Benfield

Posted March 18, 2011

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  Easton, MD (by: Jack Duval, creative commons license)

Yesterday, the Eastern Shore (MD) Land Conservancy announced the launching of a new Center for Towns to support “models of sustainable, walkable, diverse, well-defined and vibrant communities within our beautiful rural landscape.”  The Center was announced at a press event attended by yours truly in the beautiful town of Easton, where the Conservancy is also holding a conference.  I was honored to be invited to speak at the conference, along with my cyber-pal and fellow blogger Chuck Marohn of the organization and consultancy Strong Towns.

The new Center is a logical and potentially important step for ESLC and the Eastern Shore.  This scenic, mostly rural part of Maryland – nine counties bordered by the Chesapeake Bay to the west, the Atlantic Ocean to the southeast, and the state of Delaware to the east – is at the heart of one of the world’s great ecosystems.  It is also an ecosystem in itself, rich with farms, wetlands, and wildlife, including some amazing waterfowl.  James Michener’s famous novel Chesapeake was set here. 

the 9 counties (by: MD Dept of Planning)But there is no healthy landscape without healthy towns.  The ecosystem for people and the ecosystem for nature are utterly dependent on each other.  Tourism, farming and fishing, for example, are very big parts of the local human economy and all three are dependent on a sustainable landscape and natural environment.  All three are also put at risk by sprawl, which has been gobbling up the shore at a rate three times faster than population growth. 

Yet this not a busy metropolitan area.  Although the region as a whole has a population of over 400,000 residents, they are dispersed:  the Shore's largest community, Salisbury, had a population of only 23,743 at the 2000 census.  There are a total of around 50 municipalities in the nine counties.

To stem the spread of sprawl, the Shore’s towns must be strong enough to attract and hold residents, businesses and investment.  The number of households on the Shore is projected by the Maryland Department of Planning to grow by 43 percent over the next 25 years, and it will be critical that the growth be absorbed in as small a footprint as possible within and around the town centers, in order to conserve the landscape and limit environmental impacts.

Fortunately, this is entirely possible.  The Department of Planning has done a capacity analysis finding that all of the growth can be absorbed within the designated “priority funding areas” on the Shore.  waterfowl on the Eastern Shore (by: Lee Carson, creative commons license)PFAs are the areas within Maryland’s soft (too soft) growth boundaries, drawn around existing communities by the counties; state money in support of development is mostly restricted to the PFAs. 

But loopholes abound:  in the decade and a half since the law has been on the books, as much as 42 percent of the Shore’s new single-family housing was built outside the areas designated for growth, as if they didn’t exist.  Even worse, the average lot size of parcels built outside the PFAs for the 15-year period was more than two acres, over five times as large as the average lot size inside of PFAs.  This, my friends, is sprawl, plain and simple.

If political will can be mustered, this can be turned around.  The Department of Planning estimates that approximately 96,000 acres of farm and forest land could be converted to development under current trends.  But a scenario incorporating only modest smart growth measures could save 72,000 acres of resource lands, reducing the land lost to development to just 24,000 acres (a 75 percent reduction).  In the maps below, the one on the left shows the pattern of development under current trends; the one on the right shows the smart growth scenario.  Both accommodate the same number of additional residents.

  development under current trends (by: MD Dept of Planning)    projected development with better land use (by: MD Dept of Planning)

The International City/County Management Association’s excellent publication, Putting Smart Growth to Work in Rural Communities (written with the federal EPA), recommends a number of excellent strategies to bolster the continuing viability of the rural landscape.  Here are some:

  • Rural zoning, which can restrict development to very large parcels (the Maryland Department of Planning recommends a minimum of 20 acres) and/or purposes consistent with conservation goals;
  • Value taxation, which taxes rural land according to its current use, rather than at a higher rate based on development build-out; this lowers the tax burden of keeping property in farming;
  • Conservation tax credits;
  • Right to farm policies;
  • Renewable energy development, encouraging wind farming or biomass production on rural land, bolstering its income-producing potential;
  • Transfer of development rights programs, allowing landowners in areas selected for conservation to sell their development rights at market value to owners in designated growth areas, who are then granted the ability to build at higher densities;
  • Purchase-local policies that give government preference (e.g., in schools) to farm products produced locally.

  snow geese on the Shore (by: Skip Steuart, creative commons license)

  Oxford, MD (by: queenie13, creative commons license)

Inside the towns, of course, one would look to the principles of smart growth to foster great neighborhoods: 

  • Using land efficiently to keep the development footprint small;
  • Using existing assets by building where infrastructure already exists, and adapting older buildings for re-use;
  • Supporting walkable densities;
  • Connecting streets where there are gaps and building any new streets with good connections both inside the new development and outside to surrounding neighborhoods;
  • Providing a variety of choices in housing and transportation (including with good pedestrian and bicycling infrastructure);
  • Chestertown MD (by: lifewithkarma, creative commons license)Encouraging a healthy mix of diverse uses that create complete neighborhoods;
  • Making it green, with neighborhood-scale parks, green stormwater infrastructure, and green building technology.

The Shore already has wonderful models to draw from, in its historic communities such as Salisbury, Easton, Cambridge, Oxford, Chestertown and more (see photos).  There is a reason that these lovely, walkable town centers have stood the test of time and continue to draw visitors.

The Shore is in a position to commit to principles like these and guide its future development in an environmentally and economically sound manner.  If it does, its future looks very bright indeed, for many decades to come.  But, if it fails to do so, sprawl could undermine all of the qualities that have made it special, for nature and for people.  The Land Conservancy's new Center for Towns can play a role in helping communities make good choices.

For more, I recommend two excellent  reports:  The Maryland Department of Planning’s A Shore for Tomorrow, and the Conservancy’s “State of the Shore” report.

Move your cursor over the images for credit information.

Kaid Benfield writes (almost) daily about community, development, and the environment.  For more posts, see his blog's home page

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Jim NoonanMar 18 2011 09:59 PM

It was a good session. ESLC's move to support small towns on the Eastern Shore is timely. I als appreciated your support for programs and actions that encourage a viable human environment as well as natural environments.

One word of caution. Though land capacity numbers from MDP indicate capacity on the Eastern Shore to support growth, other State policies combined with a lack of adequate infrastructure investment and support for administrative capacity in Towns on the Shore will undercut that capacity.

Jim NoonanMar 19 2011 10:28 PM

Oh by the way... after you left the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy gave out several awards. One was given to the Town and residents of St. Michaels for conserving a 90 acre site within the Town limits and turning it over for long term preservation and open space purposes.

Here is the proposed development (in its original form) which has now died after more than a decade of local and regional opposition, in spite of efforts of several sets of local Town Commissioners to save it, and over a decade of failure of smart growth advocates to come to its defense.
I said that at times my comments tend toward the sarcastic. You will forgive me if I am not sanguine about the long term prospects for accomodating future growth in our historic towns.

JacobMar 20 2011 11:13 AM

Jim is absolutely right that we have to find the political will for compact and connective quality growth in the places where it is appropriate - and help develop it through education.

What's very important, however, is to remember that adding to and revitalizing our communities is a process that will be most successful in an environment of community support. Thus, it would be shortsighted to argue that "more than a decade of local and regional opposition" was somehow something that should have been brushed aside in favor of a development that (just take a look at its patterning and that of the rest of St. Michaels) was not a natural extension of the town, and was of a scale that would have dramatically changed the community.

Secretary Hall made this point much more eloquently the day before than I have here, but the proof that this was the right outcome for the community is that with tremendous vigor and enthusiasm, the entire St. Michaels community put on dozens of events, raised hundreds of thousands of dollars and has been in a euphoric state since as a result of the preservation of this property.

I am a proud proponent of many of the principles of New Urbanism, but let's not get into the unwise habit of convincing ourselves every project proposed for every site is a sensible move just because it incorporates some of those principles.

All that being said - and revisiting my first point - we do have to work (through education) to build political will and the necessary groundwork for growth/resiliency/redevelopment that changes the patterning of development over the last 40+ years (and particularly the last 20 years on the Eastern Shore). I hope our Center for Towns can play a small role in that effort.

Jim NoonanMar 20 2011 11:42 AM

Personally, I hope that Jacob is correct and that the ESLC efforts will result in support for resilent growth and redevelopment. That was the point of my first comment.

Now, let's talk turkey... or chicken, since we are on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. If we really are to accomodate projected growth give a town on the shore which will not have to support development on a "scale that would have dramatically changed the community"? That term has been used by every NIMBY on the shore to oppose development after development, whether good or bad. As for Miles Point, at the time of its demise it would have added 700 residents to a Town of about 1.000. That is a substantial addition at that scale, of course... but in the grander scheme of things not so drastic. Also it might have resulted in additional residents that might have supported community based retail and services in addition to the tourism based economy that dominates the Town at present. The development had stormwater and open space amenities that are consistent with current Maryland regulations and in fact pre-dated them. The pattern is a very traditional pattern, though I will concede the point that it would not be a natural extension of the existing street patterns (mostly because the pattern of the shoreline prevents that).

But enough... the proposal is now dead. I await with enthusiasm, the day that the environmental community on the shore discovers a development of any size that they WILL support. The ball is firmly in your court. If the State's septic ban succeeds (we can hope), you will find yourselves with an obligation to find such development. Good luck with getting that development through a 12 year approval process, while maintiaing any community support for it over the full length of the process.

Kaid @ NRDCMar 22 2011 04:12 PM

I remember the DPZ proposal for St. Michael's and concur with Jake that it was too overscaled for its site to earn environmental support. Personally, I would support more incremental proposals and I suspect and hope that ESLC would, too.

Whether it was appropriate to put the parcel in long-term conservation, given its location and characteristics, is a question dependent on site-specific circumstances and one on which I do not feel qualified to comment.

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