Gov. Parris N. Glendening's Smart Growth plan -- once feared as the Big Bad Wolf of state growth control by sprawling suburban counties such as Howard -- has emerged from the General Assembly so weakened that it now elicits few complaints from county officials.
"From what I understand," said Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker, "it appears to be pretty good."
That's a far cry from the "devastating" impact that Ecker foresaw in December when Glendening aides briefed him on the bill, which sought to curb suburban sprawl by focusing state aid for )) road construction, housing and economic development in designated areas.
Then, a preliminary map of the growth areas that would have been allowed by the bill in Howard included little more than the U.S. 1 corridor -- and none of Columbia.
Now, a map of Smart Growth areas would include all of eastern Howard, from Ellicott City to Columbia to Scaggsville -- pretty much any place where residents flush their toilets into county sewers rather than septic systems.
And in sprawling western Howard -- filled with the kind of development that state planning officials have said they are seeking to avoid -- Smart Growth's most onerous consequence would be to limit the number of highway interchanges on Route 32, if the state ever widens it. The earliest construction could begin is 2000.
"I don't think this bill, in terms of the residential development of Howard County, is going to make much of a difference," said Ronald L. Young, the state planning official who was Glendening's main spokesman on Smart Growth.
Glendening proposed the Smart Growth legislation in December hopes of curbing the sprawl that threatens to swallow 500,000 acres of farm and forest land -- the size of Baltimore City and Baltimore County combined -- in the next 25 years.
For decades, residents have been moving from Baltimore and Washington into the suburbs of the two cities. State funding for new roads, schools and sewers bankrolled that flight, which drained cities of wealth, population and vitality.
The newer suburbs, such as in Howard, boomed with the arrival of new residents and business, but their taxpayers soon faced huge bills for providing city-level services -- schools, trash pickup, water systems -- across miles of former farmland.
Since 1986, enrollment in Howard schools has grown by 50 percent. The county's debt has tripled -- to the highest per-capita debt in the state -- as the county has spent $178 million in a school construction binge that is not yet finished.
But by the time Glendening and the General Assembly finished haggling over Smart Growth, some of its original supporters were questioning whether it still had the teeth to slow those patterns.
Too early to tell
"Of course, things get changed a lot in the legislative process," said Lee Epstein, a land conservation expert with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation in Annapolis. "Whether the bill leaves a big loophole for building more roads and creating more sprawl in the future, it's too early to tell."
Two compromises were key to the final shape of the bill -- and the comfort Howard County officials now feel about it:
Glendening backed off from a threat to direct state school construction aid -- a potentially powerful incentive -- to designated growth areas.
Instead, the Smart Growth bill includes a generic policy statement favoring renovations over new construction and codifying a bureaucratic process Glendening has used to favor school construction in older areas.
But nothing in the law requires this administration or future ones to direct school construction aid to designated growth areas.
Glendening also greatly expanded the rules for designating growth areas. In December, he proposed including the areas inside the Baltimore and Capital beltways, all incorporated towns and cities and any residential area with a density of 3 1/2 units an acre or more.
Density guidelines changed
Because Howard is not within a beltway, has no incorporated areas and few dense residential areas, little of the county fitted that definition. State officials gave Ecker a preliminary map designating few areas west of Interstate 95 as growth areas.
But Glendening later agreed to allow a density as low as two units an acre in areas with existing sewer service. Howard County officials are confident that -- with carefully drawn boundary lines -- all of eastern Howard can be designated a growth area, said county Planning Director Joseph Rutter.
Rutter still opposes the plan because it imposes state controls on development, but he is happier with its final, less restrictive form.
"If all of eastern Howard doesn't qualify as a Smart Growth area, then I think something is wrong with the legislation," Rutter said.
Western Howard is another matter. With its 3-acre lots and miniature mansions on grassy hillsides, state officials consider the area a model of what they would like Smart Growth to prevent.
Route 32 in question