Measure to curb building rejected Opponents say bill was attempt to strip counties' authority

March 31, 1998|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

A state bill designed to curtail development in the Patuxent River watershed has been killed by legislators who were apparently concerned that it would usurp the authority of county governments.

The bill, which would have mainly affected development in western Howard County, was voted down Saturday, 11-7, by the Environmental Matters Committee.

The vote was the culmination of a month of lobbying by supporters, who said the bill would protect water quality, and by opponents, who saw it as an anti-development measure.

Though supporters of the bill -- joined by environmentalists from Howard, Montgomery and Prince George's counties -- were mainly against two proposed western Howard developments, they also contended that the bill was designed to preserve the quality of two reservoirs that provide drinking water to nearly 1.5 million residents of Southern Maryland.

Opponents -- who included builders, farmers and county officials -- said the bill was a veiled attempt to strip away county zoning authority. They also said that if it became law, it would hurt property values and the ability of farmers to stay in Howard.

"It was a land-use bill earmarked for Howard County," said County Executive Charles I. Ecker, who lobbied against the bill. "This wasn't a clean-water bill."

Supporters said land-use and water-quality issues are intertwined. They said the measure was meant to bring Howard's zoning standards into line with those in neighboring Montgomery and Prince George's counties, in areas near the Triadelphia and T. Howard Duckett reservoirs that form their boundaries with Howard County.

"I don't think [the committee's vote] speaks very highly for regionalism," said Del. Elizabeth Bobo, a Columbia Democrat who co-sponsored the bill. "That one county, namely Howard, is allowed to have weaker protections is unbelievable."

The bill was sponsored by three Columbia Democrats and 11 other delegates, including Republicans, most from Prince George's and Montgomery counties.

The bill would have restricted building on 46,000 acres of western Howard to one home per 5 acres. Current zoning regulations allow homes on 3-acre lots in much of the area near the reservoirs, with denser developments allowed if builders have bought development rights from land owners in other parts of the county.

The bill also would have created new rules for drainage fields and septic systems.

Some supporters agreed with opponents that the impetus behind the measure was the fight against two proposed western Howard County developments -- a 116-unit condominium complex in Glenwood and a 98-home project in Dayton.

For months, residents opposing those two developments have wielded the Patuxent's water quality as a weapon during meetings and hearings of county agencies about the proposed projects.

This bill marked those residents' first foray into state politics, but perhaps not their last.

"Absolutely, we would have liked it to pass," said Diana Reichof the Dayton Community Association. "Just because it didn't happen this time doesn't mean it won't happen in the future."

Bobo said the vote probably meant the end of such legislation for the foreseeable future.

"I would say it was defeated by a comfortable margin," she said.

Pub Date: 3/31/98

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