Glendening plan would limit sprawl Proposal to focus state spending on existing communities

Initial reaction is mixed

Goal is to protect farmland, forests from development

December 22, 1996|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF Sun staff writers Larry Carson, Edward Lee, Melody Simmons, Craig Timberg and Scott Wilson contributed to this article.

Declaring suburban sprawl a threat to Maryland's future, Gov. Parris N. Glendening has drafted a sweeping plan to focus state spending on existing communities while protecting tens of thousands of acres of farmland, forests and natural areas from encroaching development.

The governor's "Smart Growth" legislative initiative, to be presented next month for General Assembly review, would use state money as a carrot to lure residential and commercial development back to cities, towns and older suburban neighborhoods. Everything from road and school construction to business and housing loans would be affected.

The three-pronged plan also calls for encouraging redevelopment of abandoned industrial sites, known as "brownfields," by streamlining cleanup requirements. And it proposes creating "greenbelts" around sprawling communities by buying open land and development rights.

"I want to turn our $15 billion budget into a tool for smart growth and neighborhood conservation," Glendening said in an interview last week.

As might be expected with any proposal affecting so much money and land, Glendening's initiative has drawn mixed reviews as he and aides have shopped it around the state the past few weeks, suggesting that he may have to fight for it or compromise, or both.

Sprawl threatens the health of the Chesapeake Bay, the governor said, by gobbling up environmentally sensitive land and increasing air pollution. Based on current development trends, planners predict that 500,000 acres of farm and forest land -- roughly the size of Baltimore County -- will be lost over the next 25 years as people spread across the state.

The state's 5-million-plus population is expected to increase by 1.1 million by 2020, while up to 500,000 current residents are likely to leave older neighborhoods for new subdivisions.

Ever-expanding suburban development is sapping the vitality of Maryland's urban areas and weakening residents' sense of community, Glendening contended. It also threatens to bankrupt state government, he said, by wasting money on new schools, roads and other services while older facilities are abandoned.

"I've just made a personal commitment that I'm going to do everything I can in my years in this office to stop the sprawl, to help neighborhood conservation and to make my contribution to protection of the bay," the governor said.

Three-part proposal

The "Smart Growth" legislative package is the culmination of a yearlong search by Glendening and his aides for new, stronger tools to control sprawl. It has three basic elements:

All state money for public works, such as roads, schools and government offices, would go to "priority funding areas." Those would include all 157 incorporated cities and towns in the state, all suburbs inside the Baltimore and Washington beltways, and outlying areas with existing or planned utilities that also have at least 3.5 houses per acre.

Streamlining regulations and offering tax breaks and loans to encourage voluntary cleanup and redevelopment of old industrial and commercial properties. Environmentalists blocked a similar bill in the legislature last year, but Glendening said he hopes to overcome their objections and win passage this year.

Creating a "Rural Legacy" program, in which farmland, forests and other undeveloped lands would be acquired or protected through voluntary easements with landowners. The governor proposes to spend more than $15 million the first year, but boost that to $160 million through borrowing over the next five years. Glendening predicted that up to 90,000 acres of land could be preserved.

A 1992 state law, the Economic Growth and Resource Protection Act proposed by then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer, already requires counties to direct future development to areas with roads and sewers. But Glendening said the law is too broad to be effective.

"What we want is to put some teeth in it," he said. "We're asking local governments to designate growth areas, but serious ones."

Glendening has ruled out any attempt to interfere with local officials' traditional control over zoning and land use decisions, but he declared that the state would no longer help pay for low-density development.

"If a county or developer wants to build a subdivision outside town and continue sprawl, they have a legal right to do so," the governor said, but he added that the state will not help in any way. The only exception, he added, would be to provide schools.

State officials have no tally of how much the state has spent subsidizing sprawl, but Glendening said he has "no doubt" that at least $1 billion in taxpayers' money has been wasted helping build schools, roads and other public facilities in outlying areas.

"We pay hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars for sprawl, for new roads and schools, and then we pay hundreds of millions to revitalize old areas," he said.

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