Reining in development Key issue for '98: Voters must differentiate between responsible growth, unruly sprawl.

September 23, 1996

TO MANY SUBURBAN residents, developers are the 1990s equivalent of Darth Vader -- an evil farmland-gobbling, road-clogging, neighborhood-ruining, money-grubbing, politician-bribing force. In fact, developers are merely business people, out to make a profit by providing a product that meets a great private need and causes great public concerns.

There are good developers and bad ones. Tied to their fate are thousands of people in the building trades and real estate industry, as well as money for the government services people desire. Like any other special interest, developers have the right to try to persuade elected leaders to see things their way.

The danger comes when special interests grow powerful enough to intimidate or sweet-talk politicians into making decisions that benefit them at the expense of the public good. Developers pose such a danger because they have money to pump into candidates' coffers. Their influence does not have to be illegal to be excessive. A politician whose individual developer contributions fall within legal limits can still be beholden to builders if too great a percentage of his campaign fund comes from them.

Throughout Maryland, development may be the biggest issue leading into the 1998 state and local elections. In Carroll, Howard and Harford, the huge market for new homes has left those counties struggling to keep up with demand for services and save something of their landscapes. Controversy over growth also pervades Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties, older suburbs that need the economic boost development generates but whose citizens fear the impact on schools and infrastructure.

Citizens who are unhappy about development should use their voting power to get rid of elected leaders who have been irresponsible in this regard. But they must resist the temptation to vote on impressions or assumptions.

Find out how many new subdivisions were truly approved during an executive's term. Discern whether efforts were made to ensure that services kept pace with growth. Consider the kind of growth -- its appearance, location, environmental impact. In fact, elected leaders who deny the benefits of new business are as irresponsible as those who allow business interests to run roughshod over everything else.

Pub Date: 9/23/96

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