Pro­tect­ing ru­ral Arun­del

Our view: Schuh starts a vi­tally im­por­tant de­bate on de­vel­op­ment


Anne Arun­del County, on the bor­der of the Bal­ti­more and Wash­ing­ton re­gions, is likely to face in­tense de­vel­op­ment pres­sure in the years ahead. As the two big metropoli­tan ar­eas grow, Arun­del is likely to see more peo­ple, more cars, more houses, more roads, more stores, more of­fices and more of every­thing else. The ques­tion is, will that growth hap­pen in an or­derly, planned way, or will it run roughshod and change the na­ture of the county, par­tic­u­larly the his­tor­i­cally agri­cul­tural com­mu­ni­ties to the south?

County Ex­ec­u­tive Steve Schuh, a Repub­li­can, has taken a big step to­ward an­swer­ing that ques­tion with a sweep­ing set of pro­pos­als to pro­tect ru­ral lands from overde­vel­op­ment. They are com­pli­cated and will re­quire a great deal of scru­tiny from the County Coun­cil, Gen­eral Assem­bly and county vot­ers — all of whom must ap­prove por­tions of the pack­age.

The first part of Mr. Schuh’s pro­posal is now be­fore the coun­cil. It es­tab­lishes a Ru­ral Con­ser­va­tion Line to de­mar­cate what parts of the county will stay ru­ral and which will po­ten­tially be el­i­gi­ble for more in­ten­sive de­vel­op­ment. It gen­er­ally fol­lows the growth tiers the state re­quired the county to adopt some years ago and des­ig­nates as ru­ral most of the south county, some ar­eas around Pasadena, parts of the Broad­neck Penin­sula and por­tions of the west county near the Patux­ent Re­search Refuge.

If that’s ap­proved, step two is to per­suade the Gen­eral Assem­bly, which con­trols such mat­ters for Anne Arun­del, to agree that a 5-vote su­per­ma­jor­ity on the coun­cil would be nec­es­sary to ex­tend wa­ter and sewer ser­vice be­yond that line. Step three would be to try to put a char­ter amend­ment on the bal­lot re­quir­ing the same 5-vote ma­jor­ity to “up-zone” prop­erty, that is, to make it el­i­gi­ble for more in­ten­sive de­vel­op­ment.

If parts of that sound fa­mil­iar, it’s be­cause the plan is mod­eled in key re­spects on Bal­ti­more County’s highly suc­cess­ful, 39-year-old growth bound­ary, the Ur­ban-Ru­ral De­mar­ca­tion line, or URDL (rhymes, ap­pro­pri­ately enough, with “gir­dle”). Wa­ter and sewer ser­vices are limited to ar­eas in­side the URDL, and the rest of the county — about two-thirds of the land — must rely on well and sep­tic sys­tems, which lim­its growth.

Some of those who would be in­clined to sup­port Mr. Schuh’s goal are, nonethe­less, ex­press­ing early skep­ti­cism about whether it would work. The pro­posal es­sen­tially freezes in place the cur­rent rules for de­vel­op­ment. That’s a key point po­lit­i­cally, in that Mr. Schuh can cor­rectly as­sert that he’s not tak­ing away the prop­erty rights any­one al­ready has, but some ad­vo­cates ques­tion whether ex­ist­ing per­mit­ted uses in ru­ral zones are al­ready too broad. It’s also not cer­tain that a su­per­ma­jor­ity vote would be a bar­rier to the coun­cil en­croach­ing on ru­ral zones.

The tra­di­tion of lo­cal courtesy, which is usu­ally if not al­ways fol­lowed in Anne Arun­del, dic­tates that other coun­cil mem­bers gen­er­ally fol­low the lead of the coun­cil mem­ber whose dis­trict would be af­fected by a zon­ing change or land use project. The tra­di­tion of lo­cal courtesy, which is usu­ally if not al­ways fol­lowed in Anne Arun­del, dic­tates that other coun­cil mem­bers gen­er­ally fol­low the lead of the coun­cil mem­ber whose dis­trict would be af­fected by a zon­ing change or land use project. Of course, in Bal­ti­more County, the URDL isn’t even in the county code. It is a mat­ter of zon­ing reg­u­la­tions and can be changed by the Plan­ning Board, but the URDLis­sodeeplyen­trenched in the cul­ture that the is­sue al­most never comes up. Rather, the trend has been to­ward coun­cil mem­bers mak­ing ru­ral zon­ing more re­stric­tive. Per­haps Mr. Schuh’s RCL­would be sim­i­larly sacro­sanct one day, but it takes time.

Another is­sue Mr. Schuh faces is what hap­pens on the de­vel­op­ment side of the line. Some com­mu­ni­ties that are ex­cluded from the preser­va­tion area should prob­a­bly be in­cluded, and the ex­ec­u­tive has sig­naled flex­i­bil­ity on that point. But more broadly, he’s likely to face back­lash in the north and west county from those who make the cal­cu­la­tion that if de­vel­op­ment is shut off to the south, it has to go some­where. One of the keys to Bal­ti­more County’s suc­cess with the URDL was that its es­tab­lish­ment was fol­lowed by the des­ig­na­tion of Owings Mills and White Marsh as growth cen­ters. While that hasn’t worked out per­fectly, it at least pro­vided some­orderand­pre­dictabil­ity to the growththat fol­lowed.

Mr. Schuh may well need to broaden his pro­posal into a more gen­eral con­ver­sa­tion about growth and de­vel­op­ment in Anne Arun­del County, but that needed to hap­pen any­way. We ap­plaud him­for­putting it in mo­tion. WhetherMr. Schuh’s pre­cise ap­proach will prove the most ef­fec­tive one re­mains to be seen, but his goal is clearly the right one. He has taken a po­lit­i­cally coura­geous step in adopt­ing this is­sue, and we hope he is able to see it through.

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