Eldersburg isn't state's idea of 'smart growth' Carroll officials say governor's plan fails to address concerns

February 26, 1997|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,SUN STAFF

Once a place of farms and rural villages, Carroll County has come to represent the ills of suburban sprawl: pristine land consumed by new shopping centers and discount stores, cookie-cutter subdivisions and traffic-clogged arteries.

To understand what Gov. Parris N. Glendening wants to accomplish through his "Smart Growth" initiative, look no further than the rolling hills of Eldersburg in the county's southeastern corner.

Unincorporated, it is not a town in the traditional sense but an amorphous blob of development, mostly tracts of suburban homes built on former farms.

The governor sees Eldersburg as a condition to be avoided.

His proposal would permit the use of hundreds of millions of state dollars for roads, sewer and water lines, schools, and business development incentives only in targeted Smart Growth communities across Maryland -- mostly older, more compact neighborhoods.

That would include not just Baltimore and neighborhoods inside the Baltimore and Capital beltways, but small, incorporated cities and towns such as Carroll's Westminster, Sykesville and Hampstead.

Trouble is, officials in Carroll County don't necessarily share the governor's vision. They aren't happy with growth that has crowded schools, strained county services, and forced them to raise the county's "piggyback" income tax. But they don't see high-density development as an acceptable substitute.

"Folks feel cramped already," said Richard T. Yates, president of the Carroll County commissioners. "Development in the future will be mostly around the towns, but I would hope it wouldn't be in anything less than half-acre lots."

One person's sprawl is another's American Dream, and that may be the biggest obstacle facing Glendening's ambitious proposal, which seeks to do no less than reform the dominant social trend of post-World War II America: the suburb.

The Smart Growth plan faces its first major tests in Annapolis this week.

Today, the politically influential Maryland Association of Counties will vote on whether to support the bill.

Tomorrow, the proposal's supporters and opponents air their views at a public hearing before the Senate Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee.

Elected leaders from Baltimore and most of the state's more populous, urbanized counties -- which would clearly benefit from the bill -- have voiced support for the governor's plan.

Representatives of outer-suburbs such as Carroll and Harford and many of the rural counties have been less enthralled.

The Maryland Chamber of Commerce also has opposed it.

'Tough sledding' expected

"I think it's likely to run into some tough sledding," said Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat and Smart Growth supporter. "But if we can't agree on something like this, there's not much hope for rational growth."

The stakes in the debate are high. Without such legislation, state planners say, about 500,000 acres of farm and forest in Maryland are expected to be developed over the next 25 years -- an area equal in size to Baltimore City and Baltimore County combined.

Maryland's population is expected to grow by more than 1 million people during that period, while another 500,000 are expected to try to flee to the outer suburbs from the cities and older communities.

Residents of Carroll know firsthand the problems created by the steady growth the county has experienced over the past quarter century. Public school enrollment has increased by about 700 students each year -- the equivalent of an entire elementary school -- with no slowing expected for at least 10 years.

As a result, more than half the county's primary schools are at or over capacity. One new elementary school is under construction; two more will be later this spring. A new high school and middle school are on the horizon, with a combined cost of more than $41 million.

Meanwhile, the county would like more state money for road improvements and to lure new businesses and expand the tax base.

"We've been growing for 25 years and there's a lot of concern about the stresses," said Commissioner W. Benjamin Brown, a former Westminster mayor. "Personally, I applaud the governor for the initiative, but I'm in the minority."

Pattern of growth

Concern over the county's current pattern of growth doesn't necessarily mean people would prefer high-density development.

In Carroll, "high-density" is often understood as "low-income," and that form of housing attracts few supporters in this conservative county of 145,000 people.

"I think it's fair to say that a lot of people are concerned about bringing in lower-income people," said Gregory L. Becker, the Sierra Club's Carroll County chairman.

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