In Charlottesville, a Search for Balance

Is There a Lesson Here for Maryland's Counties?

By Tom Horton

How many people do we wish to house around Chesapeake Bay?

Forty two years ago a conference convened by Maryland Governor Spiro T. Agnew concluded we needed to answer this question to manage the health of the estuary.

In a perverse way we did. With one notable, recent exception, the watershed's 1,600 or so political jurisdictions, from states to townships, effectively said growth is good, necessary and inevitable, and set no limit. The governments and most environmental groups assumed they could reduce per capita environmental impacts enough that it wouldn't ever matter how many 'capitas' came.

The notable exception is Virginia's Albemarle county and its city of Charlottesville. Leaders there a few years ago said it was worth examining if there was a desirable limit to population in an area tabbed in 2004 "best place in America to live."

The city and county gave $36,000 to a small non-profit called ASAP (Advocates for a Sustainable Albemarle Population), formed by locals to do research, education and policy development. With other grants and contributions from members, ASAP began an Optimum Sustainable Population Size project, the first such attempt in the nation.

"The question was how big can this community grow and still protect its environment, retain its quality of life and maintain its distinctive character," says Jack Marshall, a retired anthropologist and ASAP's president.

Marshall had done research in Indian villages on attitudes toward contraception, "and the fatalism I found there often reminded me of our acceptance that growth can't be changed," he says.

At first glance, the Albemarle region hardly seems threatened by growth. Its nearly half million acres of picturesque, rolling Blue Ridge farms and stream valleys are home to 135,000 people. Forest covers nearly two thirds of the land. Charlottesville has the University of Virginia, a European style downtown mall, sushi bars, coffee shops, interesting used bookstores and art galleries.

But population there for decades has been growing faster than India's--a seemingly modest 2.1 per cent a year; but that means a doubling every 33 years, moving toward half a million people in 50 years.

That's projected population. What would be optimum?

A first cut at the answer emerged recently from ASAP's study. If the region had to support residents' present lifestyles largely from the local landscape, it would need nearly four times the half million acres it has.

Put another way, the region could support about 36,000 peoples' current demands for natural resources, far less than the 135,000 living there already.

That's not a problem right now because like much of the United States, the region can afford to keep importing its plywood from Borneo's rainforests, its oil from the Middle East, its fruit from Brazil, veggies from Mexico, clothing from China and seafood from the world's oceans. And for awhile longer it can keep discounting the price of continued growth, now paid for in declining forest acreage, increased groundwater withdrawal and decreased water quality in the Rivanna, which like most Chesapeake rivers, sends too many nutrients to the bay.

But whether it's consuming the products of other parts of the world or the local natural resources, ASAP concludes, "we are in ecological deficit, unsustainable." And unsustainable to a point that it's hard to see how a sustainable balance could be restored only by reducing each person's ecological 'footprint,' their demand on natural resources. The numbers living there (and across the Bay region) matter too, it seems after all.

So what's the optimum population? Some computer modeling ASAP has done indicates many of the region's natural values will begin to fall off markedly when the population exceed 186,000 people, a degradation that might be widespread by the time population reaches 280,000.

But no one's putting a number on it yet. Further studies in ASAP's project will look at the economic costs of growth, at residents' attitudes, at impacts on property rights, affordable housing and such.

"Our hope is we'll start a dialog that might reach consensus about the right size for our community," Marshall writes; "or at least some agreement that there needs to be a limit."

It won't be easy. Though ASAP has a diverse group of supporters, including local business people who say growth just means more big box store competition, county government has become more pro-development. New supervisors are considering a plan to significantly increase revenues through economic growth.

ASAP says it supports economic development, but not the kinds that depend on population growth. Its members acknowledge the current supervisors probably wouldn't have funded their study.

It's often assumed that solutions to growth must be global; but even global movements have to start someplace. Every county in the Bay watershed ought to become interested in how ASAP's approach plays out in Virginia. Because the only thing more radical than talking about limits to growth is acting like there are none.

Tom Horton covered the bay for 33 years for The Sun in Baltimore, and is author of six books about the Chesapeake. He is currently a freelance writer. Distributed by Bay Journal News Service.


Advocates for a Sustainable Albemarle Population (ASAP)

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