ANNAPOLIS – Dorchester County wants to build a new industrial park to attract much needed jobs, but it’s got a little problem – it can’t find anywhere to put it.
With a 10.3 percent unemployment rate, Dorchester qualifies for state funding for projects, such as the proposed $1.7 million industrial park. The money was granted a year ago under the One Maryland program, which was created to raise the standard of living of Maryland’s poorer counties to the same level as the state’s more affluent communities.
Ironically, it’s another state program that’s responsible for Dorchester’s difficulties. Before 1997’s Smart Growth legislation, which was Gov. Parris N. Glendening’s marquee effort to fight urban sprawl, finding space for the industrial park in one the of the state’s most sparsely populated counties would have been no problem. Now, however, the new regulations have shrunk the area Dorchester and many other rural counties have to build these projects — sometimes by up to 95 percent.
The problem is “priority areas,” which the state set up to encourage development in urban areas with existing infrastructure. Smart Growth mandates any development involving state funds must take place in priority areas.
Because Dorchester has few such urban areas, less than 5 percent of its land qualifies as a priority funding area. This has some county planners scratching their heads.
“The state sort of set the rules on those boundaries,” said Steven Dodd, director of the Dorchester County planning office. “They didn’t really give the counties any leeway.”
In counties like Dorchester, the issue isn’t taming the growth spreading like wildfire over suburban counties like Montgomery and Prince George’s – it’s trying to attract growth to replace failing industries and depressed economies.
“I think (the priority funding areas) will all need to be adjusted if we’re going to grow, if we’re going to create new jobs, because we do not have any land left in the city limits,” said Betty Causey, director of the Dorchester County Department of Economic Development.
The industrial park, which doesn’t yet have any confirmed tenants, will be eventually be built, Causey said. But Smart Growth rules could be really costly to vital projects. For example, if such regulations had existed when it was refurbished five years ago, the Nanjemoy Community Center in rural Charles County probably never would have survived.
Through federal aid, the center was dramatically renovated to provide health care, dental care and senior citizen programs for people who would otherwise have to travel 22 miles to La Plata or Indian Head, said Kate Kelly, center director.
“People who come in here haven’t seen a doctor in years and are in pretty bad shape, so we’re pretty vital,” she said. “This is the heartbeat of the western side of the county. . . . If this was not here I would hate to think where we’d be.”
Today, the project would not be funded without a special exemption granted by the Department of Housing and Community Development because it is not in a priority funding area.
As many as 10 percent of current programs aimed at rural areas may have to be cut or moved to priority areas due to Smart Growth, said Raymond Skinner, state housing secretary.
The reviews on Smart Growth are not negative among all rural counties. Jerry Redden, director of the Worcester County Department of Economic Development, said Smart Growth has helped rein in rampant growth that could otherwise overrun the county.
“At this point it’s not had any negative effects on our county,” Redden said. “It just means you need to plan how you’re going to maintain your growth.”
However, Worcester is one of the few rural counties with growth to control. Its population has grown three times faster than the rest of the state since 1990.
The population in many other rural counties, such as Allegany and Dorchester, have actually dropped, leading officials to question the need for Smart Growth.
“The one group of folks that we know are leaving are the ones who get degrees in higher education,” said John Kirby, deputy director of the Allegany Department of Economic Development. “The issues here aren’t sprawl, it’s attracting growth of any kind.”
Dorchester County officials echoed the sentiment.
“I think (Smart Growth) is a great deal of help for the Western Shore,” Causey said. “But we here in this county do not have urban sprawl. We have not grown in 50 years.”