Sam Shoge, a former Chestertown councilman, told the Bay Bridge Monitoring Committee that the changing demographics of Kent County provide reasons to welcome, not oppose, a Bay Bridge span terminating in the county.
The meeting, in the Kent County Commissioners’ hearing room Nov. 28, drew several interested listeners, including some on the anti-bridge side of the debate. Shoge’s presentation, aided by a PowerPoint display, took about an hour, including a question-and-answer session with audience participation. Shoge noted that he is a graduate of Kent County High School, and a homeowner in the county –and that he hopes, in time, to be the parent of children in the county’s public schools.
Shoge’s talk, “Kent County, Maryland: Reimagining the Status Quo,” began by noting that the county’s population has declined by 4% since 2010, from 20,191 to an estimated 19,384. This is while the population of Maryland as a whole grew by 4.8%, according to the state Department of Labor and Licensing. The county’s population peaked in 2011, with an estimated 20,250 residents. Meanwhile, the populations of Kent’s three neighboring counties – Queen Anne’s and Cecil in Maryland, and Kent in Delaware – grew steadily in the same period.
Other statistics show that Kent’s population is the third oldest in Maryland, with a median age of 46.5 (behind Talbot and Worcester counties). The percentage of residents living below the poverty line rose from 12% to 14% between 2010 and 2018, well above the statewide average of 9.7%. The population of the county’s public schools fell by 19% between 2005 and 2015 and is not expected to recover in the next decade.
Property values in Kent have also declined over the last 10 years, with median home sale prices dropping 18% since 2009, from $264,000 to $219,000. This has resulted in a 9% decline in the real property tax base in the county, with a consequent drop in the county’s tax revenues. Single-family building permits have also dropped since their peak in 2003 when 429 were issued; Amy Moredock, county Director of Planning and Zoning, said the most recent figures are not as low as Shoge said, but agreed that they have declined since the building surge of the early 2000s.
Shoge then turned to national trends for perspective. Since the early 1990s, small counties’ share of business creation has fallen from 32% to 19%, while counties whose population is over 1 million increased their share from 13% to 58%. The share of rural counties and small towns without a bank has grown from about 12% to 32% since 1995, while the amount of money lent in those areas is the lowest in the country, according to the Wall Street Journal. Rural hospitals are also an endangered species, nationwide, with 120 closures since 2005 – and the National Rural Health Association estimates that more than 1/3 of 2,000 current rural hospitals are in danger of closing. Two other components of rural economies, farming, and hunting, are also in decline. None of these trends bode well for Kent, the smallest county in Maryland in terms of population.
Having established these statistics, Shoge turned to examine common arguments against adding a third span to the Bay Bridges. Some say that self-driving cars will make the new span unnecessary and obsolete. Shoge responded that it’s hard to predict when self-driving cars will become mainstream, if they ever do. It is unknown how the insurance industry and other auto-based businesses will greet their arrival. And if they do make an appearance, they may actually increase traffic by making driving easier for everyone.
To the perception that business is thriving in Kent County, with the new KRM business campus and the revival of the Chestertown Marina, Shoge said the percentage of new businesses is actually down 17% since 2005. And hundreds, if not thousands, of new residents would be needed to reverse the decline in school population.
There is also a perception that a third span should focus on mass transit rather than auto traffic. Shoge said that Kent already has mass transit in Delmarva Community Transit, which operates buses between Kent and the lower Shore. Also, mass transit is as likely as road construction to result in a boondoggle, especially in low-density areas. Finally, mass transit is no more immune to opposition from environmental groups than road building; he cited the example of the Purple Line on the Western Shore.
Shoge concluded by addressing the concern that a new bridge would result in Kent being “paved over” in the manner of Kent Island near the current bridges. He noted that 1.5 million construction workers left the business after the Great Recession, with the current median age in that business above 50 years old. And only about 6% of school children show interest in going into construction. Single-family housing construction is currently flat, while multi-family is on the increase. And that icon of suburban sprawl, the shopping mall, is apparently an endangered species, with a quarter of the existing malls in danger of closing by 2022. Retail space as a whole is down by 90 million square feet in 2018, on pace to match last year’s record of 105 million square feet of stores lost to closings. In short, Shoge said, suburban sprawl is a dying trend, with mixed-use development the model currently in favor with planners and developers.
“Our rallying cry should be, ‘Maximize the upsides and mitigate the downsides of a third span,’” Shoge said. He then suggested several planning tools that would give the county an edge in dealing with a bridge coming in from the western shore. A cap on retail square footage, strict architectural standards, and selective extension of water and sewer to designated growth areas would inhibit sprawl. At the same time, putting tolls on local feeder roads, as Virginia has done with local roads paralleling the Dulles Airport expressway, would reduce traffic on those roads. And removing parking minimums and lowering setback requirements would produce more compact neighborhoods.
In conclusion, Shoge noted that the time to adapt is limited, with recessions occurring almost every 10 years. The county needs to be ready before the next recession hits, or it may lose its opportunity to shape its own future.
Committee member Tom Tontarski agreed that the time until another recession is probably shorter than anyone would like. Because of that, a new Bay Bridge is probably not going to be built in any short time frame.
Shoge said he had begun by focusing on data precisely because the economic trends don’t look good. Recessions affect rural areas disproportionately, he said, and they have less ability to bounce back than more densely settled areas. Access to a metropolitan area, as Kent County would acquire with a bridge to Baltimore, would improve the county’s ability to recover. Human capital is a key to recovery, he said, and in the current conditions, it is difficult to bring new people here. But while building a bridge is a long-range project, the county needs to be prepared to take advantage of its impact – and to be ready to mitigate any negative effects.
Janet Christensen-Lewis, who has been one of the leaders of the effort to prevent a new bridge being built to Kent County, said that the county’s planning tools are designed to suppress new development, not enhance it – assuming that they work as intended. “You can see it all over the place, where tool boxes were put in place and now they’re restricting what is happening.” She said the tools Shoge suggested are very restrictive. She said the trend to multi-family housing came about because the population is aging – to attract younger families with children, the county needs to increase its stock of single-family housing. She pointed to Middletown as an example of the way access to a metro area affects development, with its huge increase in population a direct result of its proximity to Philadelphia.
Shoge said that all the qualities Christensen-Lewis was talking about are the qualities that make Chestertown and Kent County unique. He said the appropriate use of planning tools was to “ensure that the growth that you do get fits with the overall characteristics of your community, and you’re not using them as a bludgeon to prevent companies or businesses from doing things. (…) Ultimately, it’s going to prevent your Middletown scenario from happening here.”
Christensen-Lewis said that the Route 301 upgrade in Delaware would lead to an increase in the county’s population. The need for a bridge and the necessary connecting roads “seems to be pretty short-sighted” given that scenario, she said.
Mike Waal, a former member of the Bay Bridge Monitoring Committee, said from the audience that it’s important not to confuse the reasons for a bridge with the results of building one. The reason the Maryland Transit Authority gives for building a bridge, he said, is “to alleviate the immense amount of traffic from Delaware and Maryland shore resort areas.” He noted that the full-time population of Ocean City is about 8,000, but during the 12-week beach season, it grows to around 300,000. The major focus of the Transit Authority is on westbound traffic returning from the shore resorts, including those in Delaware, which can be as many “a million people trying to get off the shore” on a peak summer Sunday. He said a bridge running to Kent County doesn’t address that problem. Instead, it connects Kent County to Baltimore City – “and why you’d want to be hooked up with Baltimore City, with their crime rate, I can’t figure out quite yet.” He said the bridge and related infrastructure would create “a monumental headache, environmentally,” for the Transit Authority.
Waal addressed several of Shoge’s specific points. He said the push for autonomous vehicles was on account of drivers slowing down to look at the view as they reach the peak of the bridge. He also said that the current bridges are at maximum capacity and cannot support additional lanes, including mass transit lanes. In addition, people going to the beach want to carry more luggage and other belongings than they could take on a train. “That’s why we have this massive situation with cars.” He said autonomous vehicles would be usable in that scenario. He said the upper Delmarva peninsula should be considered as a regional economic environment, with people who work in Middletown seeing Kent County as a refuge – “a nice place to live.” He said the county’s planners should look at ways to “coat-tail on Middletown” as a way to enhance the county’s economy.
Shoge said he wasn’t looking at MDTA’s reasons for the bridge, but at ways to handle the results of such a bridge and “to catalyze that overall potential.” He said the Upper Shore Regional Council” is already looking at the area as an economic entity. He said the tools he suggested were also applicable to growth moving down from Middletown. “We’re still going to have some semblance of control,” and “maintaining our overall characteristics and good points.” He said he was not opposed to growth along the 301 corridor or to expansion of current businesses – “I’m for it all, in addition to the potential and possibility of a third span.” He said it would solve many of the county’s economic problems by adding to the tax base and the school population and boosting the housing market. “In the best case scenario, we start to realize some of that growth, and I am for it.”