Growth-control bill snares new friends, loses some old ones Environmentalists vs. the builders

February 17, 1992|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,Staff Writer

A year after failing to waltz a bold growth-management bill through the Maryland General Assembly, the Schaefer administration is back, singing a softer tune and dancing with different partners.

The administration has won over its enemies while disappointing old friends with a drastically revised measure that would let counties decide where new development should go. It also would let local officials say how, or whether, to protect streams, steep slopes and rare plants and animals from bulldozers.

The bill, which gets its first hearing in Annapolis today, has the solid backing of builders, bankers, farmers and county officials, who succeeded in getting last year's measure shelved for summer study.

But the change in approach has so alienated environmentalists -- the governor's only allies in last year's fight -- that activists are torn between trying to strengthen the bill and killing it outright.

"Our fear is that if we adopt this bill, this will be the last of growth management," said Jane Nishida, Maryland director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

"We know that passage of this bill doesn't give us instantaneous growth management and environmental protection," said Ronald N. Young, deputy state planning director. "But we feel it's a real strong beginning."

At issue is whether local governments can be counted on to curb the suburban sprawl that is gobbling up farms and forestland and undermining efforts to restore the Chesapeake Bay, environmentalists say.

Between 1985 and 1990, development consumed 145,000 acres, roughly the size of Howard County, state planners calculate. The planners project that Maryland's population of 4.8 million will grow by another 1 million people in the next 30 years. If development does not become more compact, they warn, another 626,000 acres of forest and farmland will be cleared by 2020.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer's first bill would have required the state's local governments to direct new development to existing cities, towns and suburbs already served by roads and utilities. It also set statewide minimum standards for shielding streams and other sensitive areas from building activity.

The first bill was drawn up after an 18-month study by a commission representing developers, environmentalists and government officials. Known as the "2020 Report," the study warned of the impact that population growth and development could have on the bay by the year 2020.

A sweeping change in land-use planning was needed, proponents said, in order to save the bay from people who want to live near it, and from increasingly sprawling development patterns that increase air and water pollution.

But last year's approach angered local officials, already chafing under state Critical Area and wetlands regulations, who complained that the state was trying to usurp their traditional control over zoning and land use.

The new measure contains few mandates and pushes the deadline for action back by 2 1/2 years, from January 1994 to July 1997. It directs counties and cities to review and revise their land-use plans, zoning and development rules to conform with broad principles.

Called "visions," the principles include concentrating construction in "suitable areas," protecting the bay and environmentally sensitive areas, and conserving resources.

To win over the business community, the administration this year added a seventh "vision" on streamlining regulations and encouraging economic growth. And the measure is now called the Economic Growth and Resource Act rather than the growth-management bill.

"We just felt that in order to get this started and to be less confronta

tional, we needed to take a step backward and join hands and try to consensus-build," said Mr. Young, a former mayor of Frederick who has spearheaded the administration's effort to woo local officials.

Mr. Young contends that getting local officials to draft their own rules should yield better results than state regulations would produce.

County officials say the new approach is not an excuse for inaction. They contend that many localities already have taken steps to correct haphazard development, and they vow not to give in to pressure from developers.

"We've been very hard-assed with [developers]," said Kristen Mark Hughes, associate director of the Maryland Association of Counties. "We're not in any way relaxing our regulations, and they're aware of that, and a little nervous about it."

But skeptical environmentalists point to the increasing consumption of land by development in the late 1980s as evidence that local officials need state guidance. Community opposition to clustered housing such as apartments and town houses thwarts good intentions, they say.

"The problem with leaving it all up to the counties is that the pressure on county governments is so intense to zone for low-density sprawl development," said William C. Baker, president of the bay foundation. "Good planning occurs at the counties, but then it's ignored."

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