Report Finds Counties’ Preservation Grades Vary

BERLIN — Two lower shore counties were on opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of protecting rural land and preventing sprawl with Worcester heading in a positive direction and Wicomico heading the other way, according to a report released by an independent environmental group.

The 1,000 Friends of Maryland environmental group on Tuesday released a report entitled “Maryland’s Rural Lands in Danger: Which Way is Your County Headed,” outlining each Maryland county’s efforts in preserving rural land and preventing high-pollution, costly sprawl. The report examined rural zoning, the implementation of Maryland’s Sustainable Growth and Agricultural Preservation Act of 2012 and the number of building lots considered to be a minor subdivision among others.

Worcester was one of only a few counties in the state to gain good marks on the criteria, along with Caroline, Kent and Baltimore with Allegany and Montgomery close behind.

“Worcester County’s rural zoning is among the most protective in the state,” according to the report. “The county’s strong commitment to maintaining rural character, preserving the integrity of agricultural areas and concentrating development in established communities is reflected in the draft septic tier map.”

Worcester, Caroline, Kent and Baltimore counties have “historically shown their strong commitment to protecting rural character through smart planning,” and that the counties “were able to simply draw a map reflecting their existing planning and zoning for continued success,” the report indicates.

While Worcester and the other named counties have drawn their maps, Montgomery County was the first to officially adopt the new map. Worcester is currently in the process of holding a series of public hearings on the proposed septic tier maps.

Meanwhile, neighboring Wicomico was one of just three counties to get scathing reviews in the report.

“Wicomico County, which has some of the weakest rural zoning in the state, has refused to take action on the map, instead calling for volunteers to designate themselves as rural landowners,” the report reads.

Wicomico has not kept up with other counties around the state in terms of adhering to the Sustainable Growth and Agricultural Preservation Act of 2012, according to the report.

“Wicomico County’s rural zoning, Agriculture-Rural, is among the last protective largely because of the considerable density bonus afforded to rural cluster subdivisions,” the report reads. “The Wicomico County Council has not decided if a septic tier map will be submitted to the state. Accordingly, a draft tier map has not been presented to the public. The definition of a minor subdivision has been changed from three lots to seven lots.”

Maryland’s Sustainable Growth and Agricultural Preservation Act, adopted by the General Assembly last year, was passed to limit high-polluting subdivisions on septic systems and encourage growth in areas with public sewer service. The act directs local jurisdictions to map their growth plans and zoning according to four tiers that increasingly limit the type of development that can occur.

“Current projections show Maryland losing over 400,000 acres of rural lands to sprawl development over the next 15 years,” said 1,000 Friends of Maryland Executive Director Dru Schmidt-Perkins this week. “That is a future we simply can’t afford. This mapping effort is an opportunity for the counties to change that future into one with a stable tax base, thriving agriculture and clean rivers and streams.”