CBF: New regulatory demands intended to strengthen, not weaken, rural counties

By Lee Epstein

There’s a lot of talk these days about threats to a rural way of life in Maryland. Curiously, the talk isn’t coming from folks who fear that the countryside they love will be paved over with roads, suburban subdivisions and commercial sprawl. It’s not coming from rural landowners who are committed to farming, or timbering, or running a rural inn. Paradoxically, it’s coming from some rural county politicians who see development dollars, and from builders who want to plow rural fields under and plant houses. Lots of houses.

The charges fly fast and furious, calculated to inflame: there’s a “war on rural Maryland,” says one Eastern Shore state senator. It’s unconstitutional, says a Western Maryland county commissioner. It’s unfair to landowners, says another county leader. But let’s review the law and its intent.

First, there is no war on rural Maryland other than the development onslaught that threatens to gobble it all up once the economy improves just a bit more. The state of Maryland simply is trying to better manage the development of the rural landscape while there’s still some left to manage. That benefits everyone, folks who live there now, and folks who want to move in.

Our rural counties are both blessed and, some would say, cursed. They are blessed by an abundance of resource lands: rich, rolling farmland, thousands of acres of woodlot and forest, streams that are often of good quality, small towns and cities that provide goods and services and friendly, strong communities. Rural lands provide food and fiber, and when they are well managed they also provide something else: the natural filters and upland habitat crucial for keeping streams running clean to larger rivers and the Chesapeake Bay.

The “curse,” some say, is that the very features which make living in these places so pleasant, and which make their conservation so important, necessarily narrow what can be done there by way of new development.

There are new regulatory demands of these rural counties, but these requirements are intended to strengthen, not weaken, the counties.

The law that was passed in the 2012 Maryland General Assembly, for example, recognizes that the proliferation of septic systems to serve rural subdivisions can have serious adverse effects upon local rural waters, including drinking water, and the Bay. The law requires counties to map out four different development “tiers,” each of which would have different opportunities for development, depending upon the landscape and current land uses. The most rural of these areas, currently dedicated to farming and timber management, are intended to mostly stay that way. While a little land subdivision would be allowed in these most rural areas, it would be limited. Counties would be able to protect such areas from the proliferation of septic systems and the encroachment of sprawl.

Would this reduce the amount of development currently allowed in some rural areas? Yes. Are such changes unconstitutional, or a power grab by the state? No.

Under Maryland’s constitution and duly enacted laws, it is the state which has the primary responsibility for land use law. The state delegates certain authority to local jurisdictions (for example, the power to plan and zone land), but ultimately, the state may decide that this or that feature of land use planning and zoning law should be changed – and it has the full authority to do so.

The exercise of that power can only occur after: careful consideration, using the evidence of studies and good judgment; opportunity for public comment and participation; certainty that economic use of the land remains after the regulation (i.e. not the highest economic return possible, but reasonable value); fair and equal treatment of all landowners within the designated classifications. The tier system meets these tests.

Maryland is often called “America in miniature.” We are blessed by the mountains of far Western Maryland, the rolling piedmont and coastal plain of Central and Southern Maryland, and the fertile Eastern Shore. The landscape that characterizes many of these places, however, is threatened, and the legislature has found that those threats have significant consequences for local waters, local rural residents, and the Bay. In fact, the legislature now has a responsibility to protect the rural features of Maryland under the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint. Forests and environmentally managed farms act as valuable filters of pollution. Paving them kills local streams and the Bay to which they drain.

Contrary to the belief of some, no landowner has the “right” to do with his or her land whatever he or she pleases. Our rights and our responsibilities as landowners are shared, and if what we wish to do harms our neighbor, such actions may be disallowed.

The tier system was created after long study to resolve a growing problem. Instead of fighting it, counties can become constructive partners in making it as fair as possible—indeed, in making it work. In so doing, we will improve the quality of life of all our citizens, and we will continue our important work toward improving local waters and restoring the Bay.

Lee Epstein is director of Lands Program for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.