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.