Straitjacket for Harford Growth: Court of Special Appeals will decide if proposed ballot question fails the law, as it does logic.

September 29, 1998

MARYLAND'S Court of Special Appeals today weighs the legality of a referendum question for the general election ballot in Harford County. We agree with Harford Circuit Judge William O. Carr, who last week ruled that the question would improperly take the power to legislate out of the hands of council members Harford countians will elect Nov. 3.

Judge Carr's ruling was appealed to the judicial panel in Annapolis, which must determine whether the question merits a place on the ballot from a legal standpoint. From a political and economic perspective, it doesn't.

The proposal, an emotional response to frustration over growth, isn't a solution -- it's a straitjacket. It would choke off future funding for services as basic as water and police. Howard and Baltimore counties tried similar knee-jerk construction moratoriums years ago, initiated not by voters but by county executives. Revenue and economic expansion were lost, but growth pangs persisted.

A short-term ban on building would be useful only if accompanied by a timetable to catch up on needed schools and roads. No such plan accompanies this proposal.

It was rushed toward the ballot by a grass-roots group, "Friends of Harford," whose tack seems anything but friendly. The group's dismal descriptions of the county -- gridlocked roads, sardined schoolchildren -- are far from reality.

The most self-defeating part of the proposal would forbid schools from enrolling as many pupils as they were built to handle. That would effectively halt school construction because the county couldn't rely on state aid, awarded only when schools reach 120 percent of capacity. Harford taxpayers would have the pleasure of subsidizing new schools elsewhere in Maryland, but not their own.

The ballot referendum the appeals court reviews today is no more of a remedy for growth than a tourniquet is for a headache.

Pub Date: 9/29/98

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