Schaefer enlists new allies to back growth-management bill Bankers, builders, farmers back bill, but environmentalists don't.

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 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 Chesapeake Bay, environmentalists say.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer's first bill would have required the state's local governments to direct new development to 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.

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.

But skeptical environmentalists point to the increasing consumption of land by development in the late 1980s as evidence that local officials need state guidance.

State Sen. Gerald Winegrad, D-Anne Arundel, called the administration's bill a "weak nothing-burger." He charged that administration officials ignored environmentalists' efforts to strengthen it and instead weakened it at the behest of local officials and development interests.

"If we pass this, there will not be any growth management for the rest of the decade, because this is a sham," Senator Winegrad said.

Environmentalists who hope to amend the administration bill are looking to the Senate and to a measure proposed in the House by Del. Lawrence LaMotte, D-Baltimore/Carroll. Mr. LaMotte's bill would require land-use plans to be revised to promote growth management. The state could cut off funding if a county failed to make its zoning and development regulations consistent with the revised plans.

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