A GROWING number of residents of the Washington, D.C., area are becoming concerned that the region's rapid growth, which enabled many of them to prosper during the past decade, could erode their quality of life during the 1990s. By any statistical yardstick, the region has undergone an economic boom, fueled largely by expansion among government contractors and consulting firms. While the population increased by 15 percent since 1980 (the fourth largest rate of increase among US metropolitan areas), the number of jobs grew by an even more impressive 38 percent.
But symptoms of overdevelopment have become more apparent as well. The suburban sprawl now evident in parts of the Baltimore-Washington corridor would be familiar to residents of southern California, or south Florida: congested expressways, haphazard building patterns, and, in some areas, strained government services.
``Suburban residents across the country are worried about the impact of overdevelopment on air quality, taxes, schools - anything that might erode the quality of life,'' says Robert Gray, an urban planner who runs his own consulting firm in Washington.
Like their counterparts in other high-growth regions, local leaders are now faced with the daunting challenge of controlling future development, without undermining the economy.
The task will be complicated by the fact that overbuilding in the suburbs has continued apace, with little governmental intervention, for several years. The problem is that ``so many of the horses are already out of the barn,'' according to Mr. Gray, who chaired a panel that examined the impact of continued growth on the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
Urban planners say that local governments, as well as the public, generally are slow to recognize when development is getting out of control. There is little interest in arcane subjects like zoning regulation, especially if real estate values are rising. Some of the more fortunate homeowners in the Baltimore-Washington area, which has become one of the most expensive housing markets in the country, have seen the values of their homes increase by more than 100 percent in five years.
But in the past few years there have been indications that the public is becoming energized over the issue. According to local politicians, the first signal was the 1987 defeat of the leading pro-development politician in Fairfax County, in northern Virginia. The area has been the hub of the region's economic surge, its population increasing from 174,000 to 771,000 residents since 1980.
Last month, the county leadership approved strict limits on new building, over strong opposition from developers. A number of other nearby counties have instituted similar ``down-zoning'' measures, which restrict the amount of development on land zoned for commercial purposes. Builders have vowed to challenge the measures in court, and insist the regulations could seriously harm the region's economy.
To the north, in the Baltimore area, there is less evidence of overdevelopment, but concern is emerging there as well. In a December poll published in the Baltimore Sun, most residents of suburbs located closest to the city cited drugs as the biggest problem facing their local government. In the outer suburbs, however, development was deemed the most important problem - by an overwhelming margin.
According to Douglas Porter, director of development policy research at the Urban Land Institute, more local governments are responding to public concerns by enacting growth management programs. Many jurisdictions instituted such plans in the 1970s, but they subsequently lost favor as the environmental movement began to wane in popularity.
The difficulty with such plans, especially when adopted on a county-by-county basis, is that they are tailored to the needs of one jurisdiction and do not address the entire region. Transportation specialist Allan Pisarski, referring specifically to the new Fairfax County regulations, asked, ``If you just push development further out [to another county], are you really better off?''
Many experts believe that, in the future, state governments will begin to play a more active role in the entire growth-management process. Statewide plans have recently been put into effect in Florida, Georgia, and Maine. But there currently appears to be little impetus for such a move in either Virginia or Maryland.