Talk of a third span crossing the Chesapeake Bay into Kent County has rightfully stoked concern among local residents. The surrounding landscape could change in significant ways if a span makes its way to the county, requiring massive upgrades to the surrounding infrastructure and exponentially increasing the number of cars and trucks on local roads.
Most see this change as detrimental and a threat to Kent County’s way of life.
Would a third span really be such a bad thing, however?
This letter to the editor attempts to provide additional perspective to the current dialogue regarding a third span by briefly outlining local and macro-economic trends that are affecting Kent County’s economy and, in turn, its future.
Prior to discussing the merits of a third span coming through Kent County, it is important to understand the county’s current demographic trends.
- Least populated county in Maryland with 19,730 residents
- Population has shrunk -2.3% from the 2010 Census
- Lowest K-12 public school enrollment in Maryland at 1,891 (projected to decrease through 2026)
- Third oldest county in Maryland by median age: 45.6 (preceded by Talbot and Worcester)
Demographic trends point to continued decline in Kent County. What is currently happening in Kent County is affecting most small, rural counties across the United States. U.S. Census data shows that from 2010 through 2014, U.S. counties with less than 100,000 residents combined to lose more businesses than they created. Kent County is no exception.
In 2015, Kent County had 619 business establishments, down from 728 in 2005
Rural counties have seen their portion of economic recovery steadily decrease over time during economic recoveries. In the chart below, compiled by the Economic Innovation Group by analyzing Census data, counties with less than 100,000 residents created a third of the nation’s new businesses on net from 1992-1996. During the most recent economic recovery, these same counties did not even register.
In a Brookings Institution report, the United States’ 100 largest metro areas recovered all of the jobs they lost in the Great Recession and added an additional 6 million jobs, whereas the rest of the country combined added only 300,000 jobs over its pre-recession peak.
What is contributing to massive decreases in business establishments in rural areas? In a Washington Post article, Manuel Adelino, an economist at the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University, describes it as this: “Capital chases high-growth ideas, and high-growth ideas tend to be concentrated in areas of highly educated and highly skilled workforce. This suggests that the lack of new business formation in rural America may lead to widening gaps in income and employment.”
Why a Third Span Likely Won’t Result in Devastating Sprawl
As the business establishment landscape in the U.S. has shifted, so has traditional development patterns. 300 retailers filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and nearly 7,000 stores closed nationwide in 2017, beating a record of 6,163 closures in 2008 during the height of the financial crisis. By 2022, many analysts estimate that 1 out of every 4 malls in the U.S. will close as consumer tastes change and more consumers turn to convenience of online shopping.
Companies are also ditching the suburban office park. Real estate advisory firm Newmark Grubb Knight Frank, published a report on the state of office parks around the country and concluded that 14-22% of the suburban inventory faced a degree of risk in becoming obsolete.
On the residential front, McMansions, once the standard bearer for suburban expansion, are not faring well post Great Recession. Classified as homes built between 2001 and 2007 and averaging 3,000 to 5,000 sq. ft., McMansions are not attractive to homebuyers today and an analysis conducted by Trulia shows the amount buyers are willing to pay for McMansions over other homes has fallen 26 percent in the past four years, despite a recovering housing market.
Millennials, the largest age group in the U.S. at 75 million strong, have fundamentally changed the way America pursues development. They crave transit oriented mixed-use development where they can walk to work and be near bars and restaurants, preferably locally owned rather than corporate chains like Ruby Tuesday and Chili’s (companies that are quickly losing market share to new, hip fast-casual restaurants). This increasingly popular style of development adopts many Smart Growth oriented principles and is very complimentary to the County’s existing towns.
We Already Have a Clear and Defined Precedent
Do we deny that Queen Anne’s County is rural? We don’t because despite the Bay Bridge landing in Queen Anne’s and Route 50 passing through the heart of Talbot, Dorchester, and Wicomico counties, suburban expansion has mostly been confined to small portions of each county. Kent Island has captured most of the suburban expansion in QA and represents 24% of the county’s population yet accounts for only 8% of the county’s land area.
|Town||% County Population||% County Land Area|
What is clear is that primarily one town in the county that Route 50 passes through captures the bulk of the population and economic growth while only accounting for a very small percentage of the county’s land area, leaving the rest of the county practically unaffected regarding suburban expansion. Just look at Crumpton, Ingleside, Wye Mills, Cordova, Hurlock, and Vienna. Hardly sprawling places.
Furthermore, Route 301 cuts through the eastern portion of Kent County and has extremely limited development around it despite being a major corridor.
What makes a third span landing in Kent somewhat different than the Bay Bridge in Queen Anne’s is that the largest population center in Maryland—Baltimore—will be directly connected to the smallest. The aforementioned logic still applies. Frederick and Frederick County reinforce the argument of one town capturing the bulk of population and economic growth. Frederick is near Washington, D.C. and its population has grown significantly—32% since 2000. Despite rapid growth and its proximity to D.C., Frederick represents 28% of the population yet is only 3.5% of the overall land area in Frederick County. The County has an excellent and well preserved agricultural heritage and its wineries and agritourism industry is lauded. Furthermore, Frederick consistently ranks among one of the best places to live in the U.S.
We Can Control How the Landscape Develops
The thought that a third span coming to Kent County will result in unmitigated sprawl is not grounded in any fact, just assumptions. What concerned citizens assumptions don’t consider is the County’s ability to govern land use through the Land Use Ordinance and Comprehensive Plan. Detailed in the Land Use Ordinance is everything that is and is not permitted in the county by land use classification. Property rights are strongly protected, preventing certain development from occurring near residential neighborhoods or on productive soils.
The Land Use Ordinance and Comprehensive Plan are interpreted by the Planning Commission and enforced by the Planning and Zoning Department. Within these documents are also design guidelines for development to follow (e.g. placing parking lots in the rear of the building, establishing setbacks, and determining how dense certain areas can be). The Planning Commission and Planning and Zoning Department have the tools necessary to shape how any development occurs.
Furthermore, dense, sprawling development is becoming increasingly difficult to build outside of areas serviced by municipal water and sewer infrastructure, especially in Maryland where strict environmental laws need to be followed. In addition, because of proximity to so many environmentally sensitive waterways, several state agencies—such as the Critical Area Commission—weigh in on development projects, further constraining development and increasing permitting costs and time.
Most notable, large, big-box retailers are already prohibited in Kent County according to the Kent County Land Use Ordinance which caps retail establishments at 60,000 sq. ft.
|Store||Average Size (sq. ft.)|
Why Technology Likely Won’t Save Us…In the Near Term
With advancement in electric and driverless car technology and development of advanced transportation systems like Hyperloop, surely, we don’t need a third span…right?
Government cannot and should not be in the business of speculating when technologies will become widely available and delay projects on the anticipated arrival of said technology. For decades, we have been “five years away” from developing nuclear fusion power plants to power humanity with cheap, 100% renewable energy. For decades, we have been “near the rollout” of flying cars. By now, we should have colonies on the moon according to the predictions of scientists during the space race. Instead, we haven’t been to the moon in 5 decades.
Self-driving cars stand to revolutionize transportation, but we cannot put faith in technology that is still in development to address immediate concerns and problems.
Why Kent County Needs a Third Span
A third span is highly unlikely to result in county-wide sprawl because contemporary development patterns are finally starting to shift away from dated suburban models. Furthermore, there is precedent regarding what a highway passing through a rural Eastern Shore County does to the surrounding landscape. Most growth is limited to one region or town within the county, preserving much of the rest of the county’s rural landscape.
Rather than using Kent Island, Easton, and Cambridge as justifications to oppose a third span to Kent County, we can use them as models to guide how we accommodate growth and development. Encourage mixed-use development that ties into established towns and villages, build where water and sewer infrastructure is already established, incorporate Smart Growth principles in the design of new buildings and communities, and prohibit development on the county’s most productive soils. We can do all of these things because as a local jurisdiction, we have the power to do so through planning commissions, planning and zoning departments, land use ordinances, and comprehensive plans.
Kent County could benefit from a third span in many ways and I argue the County NEEDS this bridge. Our current demographic state does not bode well for our schools, businesses, nor residents in the long term. Whereas there are bright spots (expansion of Dixon, hospital in Chestertown to remain open, marina revitalization), continued demographic and legislative trends could detrimentally impact the county.
Ask any employer in the county what their number one issue is and 9 out of 10 will likely say “finding and hiring good workers.”
With the county population shrinking, the K-12 enrollment declining, and the median age rising, where are our businesses going to find workers?
Other challenges Kent County will likely face include:
- Providing rural healthcare is becoming increasingly difficult. Keeping the hospital open in Chestertown was a great victory but expect to have this conversation again soon. In the meantime, dozens of rural hospitals in communities that look just like Kent County are closing nationwide as expenses mount and populations continue to drop.
- Kirwan Commission could fundamentally change the way schools are funded, penalizing jurisdictions that have small enrollments. With teacher pay lower than Western Shore counties and aging facilities, receiving less support from the State would be devastating.
- The data clearly shows that rural areas, including Kent County, have lost business establishments and no longer recover at the same rate as urban areas. This trend has gotten so bad that after the next economic downturn, or even before, whatever jobs or businesses are lost in these areas will likely not come back.
With all the very real challenges to be faced, are we really going to let our misguided fear of some development—development that could bring jobs, residents, and an increased tax base—scare us?