Push to hold the suburban sprawl is on Environmentalists fear Glendening isn't firm on issue

'Great deal of skepticism'

Groups afraid repeat of weak legislation is a possibility

September 03, 1996|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,SUN STAFF

Maryland environmental groups are urging Gov. Parris N. Glendening to get serious about containing the state's pattern of sprawling suburban development and do more than just encourage counties to act responsibly.

Glendening, who has pledged to present a growth-control initiative to the General Assembly in January, has in recent weeks told local government officials that his proposal won't overrule their zoning commissions or "usurp local authority."

"I do not want a state zoning board," the governor said in an Aug. 17 address to the Maryland Association of Counties in Ocean City. "Our approach is not based on governmental orders or top-down mandates."

That message has troubled environmentalists, who fear they might be headed for a repeat of the disappointment they experienced in 1992. Then, a reluctant legislature greatly weakened an ambitious growth-restriction proposal offered by Gov. William Donald Schaefer. The Schaefer plan was based on the findings of a study panel looking to the year 2020.

"The governor has to show commitment to taking a stand against the narrow interests that oppose this," said William C. Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "I don't think the Chesapeake Bay can wait another five or 10 years for leadership in this state to get serious."

Vivian Newman, president of the Maryland Conservation Council, a coalition of environmental groups, said members of her organization are looking at the governor's po- sition on growth "with a great deal of skepticism."

"We're reluctant to throw a lot of effort for something that may turn out to be like the last one [the 2020 proposal]," she said. "He's talking about some things that are promising and some things that we'd be horrified to see advance."

Glendening aides have begun considering ideas with various interest groups, debating how the state could curb the next 25 years of potential sprawl and redirect growth into cities, encouraging redevelopment of existing neighborhoods.

Ronald N. Young, deputy director of the state Office of Planning, is leading the effort to draft the initiative, consulting business groups, farmers, homebuilders, community associations, local governments and environmental interests.

The only restriction the governor has put on the pending proposal is that it can't require the state to spend more money and should provide "incentives and disincentives" to discourage sprawl, Young said.

The issue is a critical one to the environmental community. Maryland is expected to grow by more than 1 million people in the next quarter-century. Unless development is restricted, that growth likely will consume a half-million acres of farmland and a quarter-million acres of forest while older neighborhoods lose population.

"Now is the time to make the hard decisions," said Thomas V. Grasso, the bay foundation's Maryland executive director. "If we don't do it now, it's only going to get tougher."

Glendening aides point out that the governor has begun taking steps to encourage growth control. More state money has been spent on renovating schools in older areas, for instance, than in building new ones.

But environmentalists would like all infrastructure spending -- for schools, roads, water and sewers -- tied to state growth-control goals. Similar goals led to creation of the state's Economic Growth, Resource Protection & Planning Commission under the 1992 law. But environmentalists say the commission is largely toothless.

"Environmentalists said the [1992] growth control act wasn't enough the day before it was born, and they haven't changed their tune," said Kristen Mark Hughes, Maryland Association of Counties' associate director. "They aren't looking at the enormous things local governments are already doing to control growth."

Nevertheless, without state oversight, environmentalists fear more projects such as Chapman's Landing, a development of 4,600 dwellings planned along the Potomac River in Charles County. The project's opponents claim local officials embraced the controversial plan without sufficient concern for the wetlands and forest that would be lost if it is built.

"The state has to play a more active role in growth management," said Larry Bohlen, conservation chairman for the Sierra Club's Maryland chapter, "and funding incentives and disincentives could be the state's most effective tool."

Pub Date: 9/03/96

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