Gary says balance in growth policies benefits public Incumbent rejects foe's criticism of legislation for mall and racetrack

October 25, 1998|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

Anne Arundel County Executive John G. Gary is often accused of being a friend of developers. But his record shows that he both helped and hindered the industry.

What's behind his seemingly two-minded approach to an issue that a recent Anne Arundel Community College poll found to be the second-most important to voters in the Nov. 3 election, behind education?

The Republican says he has tried to boost economic growth but limit home construction as a way to bring in more tax revenue without the costly burden of building schools.

His opponent, Democrat Janet S. Owens, has criticized legislation Gary and his allies pushed to allow two of the biggest development projects in county history: a 1.4 million-square-foot Arundel Mills mega-mall west of Baltimore-Washington International Airport, and a 64,500-seat auto racetrack in Pasadena.

But during four years in office, Gary has shown that if he loves growth, it's a tough love.

On one hand:

Gary lost about $200,000 as a part-time homebuilder during the 1980s. He said the experience gave him a sympathy for builders strangled by government regulation.

Once in office, Gary cut by about half the time required to get building permits for single homes and commercial projects.

He successfully pushed last year for a county law allowing special taxation districts that make it easier for developers to finance roads and sell homes.

The most up-to-date campaign contribution forms available show that seven of Gary's 10 largest contributors are in the development industry.

On the other hand:

The number of homebuilding permits approved annually by the county fell each year during his first three years in office. (P Meanwhile, The number of commercial building permits rose from 114 to 124 over the same period.

The Gary administration has reduced the number of waivers granted to builders seeking to skirt a county ban on new homes in crowded school districts; the number has fallen from 77 waivers in 1994 to three this year.

Gary worked with the County Council to pass in September 1997 a long-term land-use plan that this month won an award from the state chapter of the American Planning Association. The plan aims to preserve undeveloped land by concentrating 90 percent of home construction in the 40 percent of the county with sewer service.

Gary last week agreed to pay $3 million to help create a wilderness preserve out of 477 acres threatened by development on the Shady Side peninsula.

Jim Foster, an environmental scientist and president of South Arundel Citizens for Responsible Development, said Gary deserves praise for doing more to prevent suburban sprawl than his reputation might suggest.

"I'm not going to tell you he's the No. 1 spokesman for the environment, but he's done right by us," said Foster. "He has publicly told developers that he will not back large developments in the green areas of the county's general development plan."

'The big picture'

But Joan Willey, chairwoman of the county's Sierra Club chapter, said Gary's growth-control policies have done little to ease traffic problems or creeping subdivisions.

"It would be a scary thing to have another four years with growth occurring wantonly and the county administration not thinking about the big picture," said Willey, whose organization has endorsed Owens.

William A. Badger, senior vice president of the Anne Arundel Economic Development Corp., said Gary's promotion of economic growth has helped lure 219 businesses -- and 13,934 jobs -- to the county.

Alternative to taxes

"This economic development is especially important because the county has a property tax cap, and so we need to find other ways to bring revenue into the county so we can afford good services for our residents," said Robert Burdon, executive director of the nonprofit Anne Arundel Trade Council.

But Gary Mauler, president of the West County Federation of community action groups, said about Gary: "His legacy is going to be that a lot of kids aren't going to have places to run. More kids are going to have to be shut up in their homes because of all the exhaust from traffic. It is not a pretty picture."

Builders also have a mixed opinion of Gary.

Jay Baldwin, president of the Chesapeake Chapter of Associated Builders and Contractors, a trade organization, said many of the developers who backed Gary four years ago hoping he would help their business have been disappointed.

"I guess we all hoped it would get easier with Gary in office, but it is still taking several years to get projects through," Baldwin said. "He hasn't been on our side the whole way."

Owens favors slow growth

Although Owens has criticized Gary's record on growth, in a recent interview she emphasized that she wants slow growth, not zero development. She said she would try to lure clean industries that bring high-paying jobs.

Owens, who grew up on a south county farm, has endorsed Gov. Parris N. Glendening's Smart Growth programs, as has Gary.

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