Local Prerogatives Become Issue in Growth Legislation

March 24, 1991|By KEVIN THOMAS

Governments rarely embrace the radical, and the Maryland General Assembly's failure to approve a growth management bill this session is no exception.

Instead of a decisive move to bring order to the rapid growth the state will likely experience in the next 30 years, the Maryland Growth and Chesapeake Bay Protection Act -- better known as the 2020 bill -- has been moved onto the back burner of summer study.

Fifteen months earlier, Gov. William Donald Schaefer charged the growth commission with looking into the effects of rapid development on the Chesapeake and coming up with solutions that would control growth until the year 2020.

The study took the commission in varied directions, looking at such things as the effects of automobile emissions and land erosion on water pollution, the impact of development on state forestland and the strain of building new roads and schools on the state's purse strings.

The resulting bill cast a net as broad as the study, setting strict, uniform growth standards for local jurisdictions. The intent was to target growth to heavily populated areas, while limiting growth in rural ones.

When confronted with swift opposition, the commission briefly hesitated but steeled itself when Mr. Schaefer urged publicly that the panel "be bold." They did, with a modified proposal that went to the General Assembly, asking that a framework for the measure be set in motion, with details to be worked out later.

But in weeks of debate, the clamor of opposition grew so loud against the measure -- the Maryland Association of Counties (MACO), Maryland Chamber of Commerce, farmers and bankers joined in the chorus -- there was little doubt legislators would retreat.

Still, even among those who opposed the bill, there was widespread agreement over the goal of reducing suburban sprawl and protecting the bay. Not supporting those goals would be to take pride in rush-hour bottlenecks and bans on rockfish.

But another goal of the legislation that did not get debated much in Annapolis this year was in fact a major reason the growth commission proposed such a radical bill in the first place. It was also a major reason for its defeat.

The commission felt that local governments had done a poor job of adhering to their own growth management plans and needed the state to force them to comply.

To understand this goal, consider K. King Burnett, a 55-year-old Salisbury attorney who sees the need for a 2020 bill every time he takes a drive along the rural roads of Wicomico County.

Since 1984, when the county updated its master plan, officials had promised that future residential development in Wicomico would be targeted near urban areas already equipped with water and sewer systems and away from agricultural lands.

But what Mr. Burnett sees during his country drives are unkept promises.

"It's hard to go down a road now that isn't lined with strip development with farm land behind it," Mr. Burnett says. "It's expensive to county governments, it's harmful to agriculture and it's very unattractive."

And if what Mr. Burnett sees isn't enough, here's some statistical evidence, courtesy of the Wicomico Office of Planning:

Between 1985 and 1989 -- despite Wicomico's land management plan -- 85 percent of the total acreage approved for subdivision plots was outside urban areas, precisely in the agricultural areas the county's plan was meant to protect.

Wicomico, still largely rural, still mostly farmland, is suffering suburban sprawl.

The problem is simple, says Mr. Burnett, "Plans are just words, zoning is action.

"You'll find every county in the state has a plan that says essentially the same thing," Mr. Burnett adds. "The counties traditionally have not implemented those plans with strong zoning. The one's who have taken the strongest stance are the ones inundated by growth, where the taxes have gone up. Doing something after the fact seems to be the history of this."

Realizing that history, the growth commission sought to hold local governments' feet to the fire, said Michael D. Barnes, the former Maryland congressman who chaired the commission.

The bill would have linked state funding for local roads and schools to how well local jurisdictions followed the plans they agreed to and the Maryland Office of Planning approved.

"You've got some counties in the state that on paper have excellent planning, excellent master plans," Mr. Barnes explained. "But when you look at the ones that have been implemented, the exceptions have been the rule."

The fact that Mr. Barnes was still trying to explain that fact of Maryland politics -- even on the day the 2020 bill was being pronounced dead -- perhaps points up another problem that spelled doom for the legislation.

Critics say that despite a panel that boasted 32 members from various special-interest groups around the state, Mr. Barnes' growth commission simply failed to communicate why Maryland needed this legislation.

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