How to Reduce Sprawl

April 16, 1991

Having encountered a formidable roadblock in the General Assembly in its quest to rein-in development sprawl, the Schaefer administration wasted little time seeking another approach: clamping down on unfettered growth by requiring local cooperation in land-use controls if counties want to obtain state money for schools, roads, parks, water and sewer plants.

While this is an entirely logical -- and sensible -- way to proceed, the administration has blundered in pursuing this proposal so quickly after being rebuffed in the legislature. It strikes lawmakers and local officials as an effort to punish those who opposed the "2020 commission" recommendations for statewide growth controls and also to sidestep the General Assembly.

Before proceeding further in this direction, the governor's staff ought to take time for a pause. No effort at statewide land-use control can succeed for long without a solid foundation that has the support of county elected officials, planning and zoning bureaucrats and key state legislators.

No such consensus yet exists. The Schaefer government would be foolish to march down the path of unilateral land-use mandates unless it has removed all of the booby traps in advance.

One of the key weaknesses of the "2020 commission" was its failure to involve local officials in its deliberations. The administration should not make that mistake again. Nor is it wise to antagonize gubernatorial allies in the legislature by immediately looking for ways to circumvent the legislature on land-use controls.

Members of the Maryland General Assembly have committed themselves to a comprehensive summer study on the issue of development sprawl. Out of this effort should come a coherent series of proposals to help encourage population growth in high-density areas and discourage -- or even ban -- construction in ecologically sensitive or pristine parts of the counties.

If the Schaefer administration wants to limit sprawl, it has to work cooperatively with local governments and state senators and delegates before implementing its own mandates. Finding common ground may not be as difficult as the governor's staffers think. There is growing recognition that population sprawl has to be contained to minimize government expenses and save Maryland from the ravages of overdevelopment. The goal of the administration should be to create allies, not enemies, in this endeavor.

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