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What the Failure to Account for Growth Looks Like in Maryland

Climate Justice

This post is part of an ongoing series on the midpoint assessment and long-term goals of the Chesapeake Bay cleanup effort.

In a recent post, I described the broad failure of Chesapeake Bay states to follow EPA’s basic expectations to account for pollution growth under the restoration framework known as the Bay TMDL. This failure is one important contributor to the current state of the Bay restoration, which is years behind schedule. If states don’t hold the line on new pollution by offsetting or otherwise accounting for growth, their jobs only become that much more difficult, and the final restoration of the Bay gets that much further out of reach. In this post and the next, I focus more closely on one state – Maryland – to examine how it responded to EPA’s expectation to account for growth and demonstrate what a year of unchecked growth means for water quality in the state. 

Maryland’s Historic Smart Growth Vision 

Maryland has earned its reputation as a pioneer in smart growth policy through the passage of a series of land use laws over the past several decades. The first of these laws, which served as the foundation for Maryland’s smart growth vision, established a statewide map of “Priority Funding Areas” into which the state would steer funding and investment to avoid subsidizing development on increasingly scarce agricultural and natural areas. 

But after several decades, experts question whether Maryland’s smart growth vision has successfully materialized. It is a difficult question to answer because it is impossible to know what would have happened in the absence of all of Maryland’s smart growth laws, regulations, and policies. How much more sprawl would have occurred in this rapidly growing region? How many more acres of forests, wetlands, forested riparian buffers, and wildlife habitat would have been cleared for development? 

What we do know is that Maryland was losing its natural landscape at an astonishing rate in the mid-twentieth century. In the 1960s through the late 1970s, the state lost forested land at a rate of hundreds of thousands of acres per decade, according to federal estimates. This rate of forest loss tapered off through the 1980s and even reversed for almost a decade between the late 1980s and late 1990s. But by the turn of the century – ironically, just after the passage of the state’s primary smart growth laws – the rate of forest loss began to surge again, hinting at a problem with the effectiveness or implementation of the laws. 

According to U.S. Forest Service estimates, between the late 1990s until the housing bubble burst, Maryland lost more than 10,000 acres of forest per year. That is the equivalent of an area the size of Baltimore City about every five years. And this level of habitat destruction is not expected to end any time soon. In fact, projections made by Maryland’s Department of Planning, by the state-federal Chesapeake Bay Program Partnership, and by academic researchers all show a significant amount of forest conversion over the next several decades based on several independent analyses of demographic, economic, real estate, and other trends. 

Every year, the Maryland Department of Planning releases an annual report with an update on smart growth trends. The most recent report, which includes data for 2015, once again showed “mixed results,” with some counties doing an excellent job steering new residential parcels into smart growth areas while other counties showed little or no ability to confine development into the areas they set aside for growth. The department concedes that, despite an uptick in the percentage of new residential development within smart growth areas since the housing bubble burst, the “long-term trend shows a decline.” 

The Smart Growth Vision Is Clouded by Lack of Implementation 

Regardless of whether or not the state’s foundational smart growth laws are successful at steering some growth into smart growth areas, it is abundantly clear they are not doing nearly enough to take the pressure off Maryland’s high-value ecosystems or to achieve many of the state’s water, climate, and other sustainability objectives. 

Maryland Department of Planning data show that only about one quarter of new residential development has been successfully confined to the smart growth areas since the original growth law was passed in 1997. The problem is not that these smart growth areas are small or overly restrictive. In fact, more than 1.2 million acres – more than one-fifth of the state – are located in Priority Funding Areas and, as noted by the department, “all of the state’s projected growth through 2040 could fit within” these areas, including undeveloped acres ready for greenfield development of entire new subdivisions, if only the law’s intention was truly given effect. 

Despite this substantial capacity for smart development across Maryland, state planners continue to provide gloomy forecasts for the future of Maryland’s open lands and, consequently, its water quality. This past April, the department presented to the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Land Use Workgroup the findings of an analysis of future land conversion in Maryland through 2040. 

The department’s model simulation of future growth included an increase in the rate of residential development outside of smart growth areas in nearly every region of the state. Statewide, it is projected that more than 80 percent of development will occur outside of smart growth areas, resulting in more than 100,000 acres being converted, much of which will involve forest loss. 

Measuring Ecosystem Loss in Real Time 

There is no shortage of historical data or modelling expertise for researchers to use to measure how much of our natural lands we’ve lost and how much more we might lose. But what regulators and policymakers need is a way to measure and eventually help to offset development as it unfolds. 

One tool that should be considered for addressing this need is the Maryland Department of the Environment’s e-Permits database for applicants of Maryland’s stormwater construction general permit. This database provides a valuable look at ongoing land disturbances in Maryland, and archived data can allow for a comprehensive analysis of land use conversion over longer periods. 

Despite some limitations, the database provides more than enough information to give a full picture of the true impact of major development projects, including whether they’re occurring on redeveloped parcels in urban areas or in pristine natural areas that officials have declared ought to be protected. Each filing in the database records the nature of the project, its location, the extent of disturbance, a description of the site and characteristics of the proposed development, and the acres of new impervious surfaces created. Importantly, the database includes exact coordinates for each project, which allows a user to plot a full year of major developments on a map using geographic information system (GIS) software. 

One Year of Development 

Between November 2015 and November 2016, 1,088 projects were submitted to the department’s e-Permits database. After reviewing each project, I found that about 40 percent represented some sort of public works, utility, infrastructure, or environmental restoration project. Once the location and other data associated with the remaining 60 percent of projects were geocoded, I created a new database that included only new residential, commercial, or industrial developments. 

Using GIS, I combined the data with other publicly accessible datasets, including Maryland’s Priority Funding Area maps, numerous layers available from the Chesapeake Bay Program partnership and several Maryland agencies, and the recently compiled high-resolution land use and land cover data completed by several agencies, nonprofits, and academic institutions. The resulting data provides a customized, big-picture view of what a year of large-scale development looks like in Maryland. 

Unfortunately, more than one-third of the projects developed during this one-year period were set to be built outside of Maryland’s smart growth areas and sewer systems. More than 200 projects were “greenfield” developments, which had the cumulative potential to disturb more than 2,500 acres of previously undeveloped land. A majority of these sprawling projects were designed to be built away from existing public services and infrastructure, including the cutting-edge sewage treatment plants that Maryland has spent over $1 billion investing in to reduce water pollution from developed areas. A surprising number of projects were built far from urban centers where growth should be occurring and instead cleared landscapes designated by the state for protection

One finding from this analysis is that not all “smart growth” is really “green growth.” In fact, several dozen of the developments to be built within Maryland’s designated growth areas were located on currently forested areas. The impact of these developments on water quality and the Chesapeake will be mitigated by virtue of the fact that the new buildings will be served by one the state’s top-of-the-line sewage treatment plants and won’t require the creation of new roads, utilities, or public services. But to be more fully protective of the scarce tracts of forested land within reach of most urban communities, we must strengthen our forest conservation laws. 

The analysis shows that 275 significant new development projects were proposed on predominantly forested or agricultural land, regardless of whether the location was inside a smart growth area. Notably, these projects proposed to disturb up to 1,200 forested acres and would create more than 400 new acres of pavement, rooftops, or other impervious surfaces, according to the regulatory filings. It must be emphasized that the true extent of forest loss each year in Maryland is far greater, as these 1,200 acres reflect only the loss of forests from a small subset of the overall construction project filings. Moreover, many forest clearing projects impact less than one acre and are not included in this database at all. 

Geographically, the proposed development projects were clustered in suburban counties surrounding Baltimore and Washington, with more than 40 percent of disturbed acreage from the development found in just four Central Maryland counties (Prince George’s, Anne Arundel, Frederick, and Baltimore counties, in rank order). Much of the development in this region consisted of proposed new residential subdivisions, which was also the most common type of project in the database. 

Surprisingly, the second biggest contributor to forest or agricultural land conversion behind residential projects was not commercial or traditional industrial development, but new industrial-scale agriculture from confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs). The Delmarva Peninsula and Maryland’s Eastern Shore have experienced a recent surge in development of new poultry operations over the last several years. Over the one-year period in this analysis alone, more than 40 new industrial-scale poultry operations were approved for construction, disturbing nearly 750 acres of mostly farm fields and establishing more than 300 new acres of runoff-generating impervious surfaces.

In the next post about the failure to account for pollution growth under the Bay TMDL, I will further explore what all of these development projects means for water quality throughout Maryland and the Chesapeake Bay watershed. 

Climate Justice

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