Friday, September 2, 2016

Good bye smart growth?

This Governor isn't a big fan of smart growth, the set of policies that under Governor Glendening put Maryland at the head of a movement that eventually became what the market wanted: urbanity on the one side and protected green spaces on the other.
Large lot development. (photo: Bay Journal)

Unfortunately the market shift doesn't make smart growth oriented growth management policies superfluous, even if there is now a healthy demand for urban living. It actually makes it more necessary.

The reasons are twofold: 

  • First, there is more growth than all established historic towns and even Baltimore City could absorb, even if magically 100% of new residents would want to live there. If the growth just goes wherever it is the easiest and cheapest, we will continue the economically and environmentally unsustainable dispersal patterns of the past
  • Second, even a relatively small number of people seeking to realize the dream of the single family home on a large lot in the boonies will spoil a whole lot of land and have a disproportionately large impact. The result is a land use pattern in which Maryland paves over a much higher percentage of land than the percentage of population that this benefits would suggest. 
The only way to make a real dent into this trend of excessive open space consumption which robs Maryland of farmland, recreation areas and natural resources at a stunning rate, is to discourage or outright ban very low density, large lot housing developments especially in areas where soils are good, streams are in danger of being degraded, or important forest buffers provide welcome relief, or where development would otherwise imperil natural assets. In short, everywhere where low density development is the most destructive.
Most parcels are developed inside water and sewer service areas (PFA)
but most land is consumed outside Priority Funding Areas where
water and sewer service are not required

But Hogan's anti growth management leaning led him to the idea of relaxing the septic system provisions established as law under Governor O'Malley.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan announced this weekend that he plans to relax a requirement that septic systems for all new homes include state-of-the-art pollution-reducing denitrification technologies.
The state would only require the use of systems with the best available technology in homes along the tidal waterfront known as the Critical Area to reduce nitrogen from wastes before it can seep into groundwater, drinking water and the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. A house on a septic system can release as much as 10 times more nitrogen into waterways than one on sewage treatment.
Former Gov. Martin O’Malley had urged the state to pass a ban on new developments on septic systems. Rural legislators revolted, and the state ended up with a compromise plan in 2012. It required all new homes not hooked to sewer systems to put in denitrifying septic systems. (Bay Journal, 8/21/16)
Here is how the septic bill relates to smart growth:

The septic bill we had in place before Hogan decided to relax it is one of the tools of protecting the environment and of growth management, because, by definition, well and septic regulation deals with development that is located where it shouldn't be in the first place, outside the water and sewer service areas. Aside from farmhouses, hunting cabins and the like, nobody should build in those remote areas, at least not an entire subdivision. 
Typical large lot development (Howard County).
Septic systems often require large lots

Since the land use and zoning laws make it very difficult to forbid development in areas where it is disproportionately damaging, the public should at least have a right to demand best practices in sewage and water management. Just consider that remote development outside water and sewer service areas means that groundwater is pumped depleting the aquifers and sewage is released into soils, the groundwater and possibly nearby streams. With a well functioning septic system the release can be managed so that in a controlled biological process most substances are converted into harmless water and solids. However, the biological transformation will always be incomplete when it comes to Nitrogen and certain chemicals from cleaners, medications, or pest control; even hormones find their way into the waste stream and eventually into the Bay or into groundwater. More importantly, many especially older septic systems don't perform to any kind of standard, especially if they are not well maintained. 

Best practice technology of nitrogen reduction can reduce the gravity of environmental foul up and the added cost discourages sprawl development, obviously, obviously the aspect that annoys a Governor who has rural and suburban real estate as his background.

Other dumb-growth friendly actions by the Gov:

  • Taking huge amounts of transit money for the Baltimore Red Line and spend it on rural highways. A subsequent bill that requires to justify transportation expenditures with some effectiveness measures is fought by Hogan tooth and nail
  • Planning for another bridge span across the Bay, rural roads instead of urban rail transit, 
  • and the systematic weakening of the Department of Planning and the Office of Smart Growth within it. 
  • Ending initiatives like Plan Maryland, which was an attempt of coordinating local land use plans on the State level so they would work in concert and provide synergy instead of each being developed without a look across the jurisdictional boundary. The plan has been relegated to the dust bin, presumably in the name of local autonomy and independence. 
One has to wonder, though, where all the respect for the wisdom of local government went when it came to the very mundane issue of summer vacation dates. For once the Governor had no problem to dictate local government what to do.

It is time that conservatives put conservation back into their agenda and realize that it is much better for economic development than un-managed growth everywhere. Smart growth is the smarter way to go, regardless of political orientation.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Baltimore SUN, Hogan will roll back septic rule

Jan 2012 Article on my other blog: What septic systems have to do with smart growth

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