BERLIN – Worcester County could reduce acreage used for development through the year 2030 by 8,700 acres by adhering to smart growth principles, a report from the Maryland Department of Planning (MDP) says.
According to the report, “A Shore for Tomorrow,” the Eastern Shore will experience acute housing pressure in the next 22 years and must be prepared to govern growth.
“The Eastern Shore will be facing a greater burden of growth pressure over the next 25 years in a state that is the fifth most densely-populated state in the U.S.,” according to MDP Secretary Richard E. Hall. “Since 1973 the region has lost over 44,000 acres of agricultural and 71,000 acres of forest lands while seeing large increases in developed land.”
The Eastern Shore can expect to add 160,000 people by 2030, a 37-percent increase, with about 14,000 of the additional population moving into Worcester County, according to the report. The rest of the state will see a 19-percent increase in the same time period.
“Maryland’s Eastern Shore has a rich and diverse landscape that includes forests, wetlands, farm land, unique natural areas, significant historic sites, rural communities, beaches and proximity to many other important water resources, including coastal bays and the Chesapeake Bay,” said Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley. “If not managed properly, the Shore’s exponential growth rate may threaten these attributes and the environmental, economic, historic and cultural benefits they provide.”
New housing should be steered into what the state calls priority funding areas, growth zones concentrated around existing infrastructure and communities, while agricultural land and forests should be conserved through zoning and preservation programs. Current planning trends need to be replaced by smart growth principles, including higher density residential development.
“We recommend some very practical measures that will protect the Shore’s community character and natural, historic and cultural resources while providing for smarter, more sustainable growth,” Hall said.
Worcester County Comprehensive Planning Director Sandy Coyman said the report deserves a detailed look.
“It’s a pretty good report,” said Coyman. “I’d like to take a good hard look at it.”
At first glance, the document’s conclusions are not news to him, Coyman said, adding that the report is more for the general public than planners and government officials who have been following the land use situation for some time.
The state report cautions that development must be steered to growth areas, and those areas need to be large enough to keep land costs reasonable, while small enough for land to be used efficiently.
Worcester County, which passed a new comprehensive plan two years ago, is positioned to handle the increase, according to Coyman.
“The planning commission and the County Commissioners came up with a good solid [comprehensive] plan,” said Coyman. “It provides for a fair amount of future development.”
The county has already preserved 69,000 acres of farmland, 23 percent of the county, and is rated as having the “most protective” level of farm land protection through its agricultural zoning, the report says, and could save another 8,700 acres through smart growth.
The Worcester County Comprehensive Plan also calls for farmland preservation.
“We worked with the farming community to make sure we weren’t adversely affecting them,” Worcester County Planning Commission Chair Carolyn Cummins said.
Worcester County should have enough priority funding area to accommodate 124 percent of projected growth. The report shows a demand for 7,025 acres to accommodate new households, and a supply of 8,769 acres.
Some of the information in the report may be unintentionally misleading, Coyman said. One item that caught his eye is the apparent loss in Worcester County of 10,480 acres of forested land.
“The implication there is it’s all gone to development but some of it’s been converted to agricultural uses,” said Coyman.
The amount of land used per housing unit has risen on the Eastern Shore, which concerns state planners, as farm and forestland is used up by development.
Worcester County is ahead of the curve in this case.
“It’s creeping up but not as high as many other places,” Coyman said.
In Worcester County, the average lot size inside growth areas is about a quarter acre, with lot sizes outside growth areas 1.5 acres.
In some cases, using the average amount of land consumed by development may be misleading, however.
“I would like to look at the median rather than the average lot size,” Coyman said. “One really large parcel pulls the average up.”
During the Comprehensive Plan overhaul in 2006, Cummins said, “One of our goals was to cut the land use in half and raise the density.”