Western counties' leaders criticize Smart Growth plans

Officials want bigger say, feel rural areas `punished'

August 29, 1999|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

Western Maryland officials, many of whom believe that Smart Growth has hurt rural counties by directing growth to developed areas, are saying that Smart Growth II legislation being drafted looks even worse to them.

David Bliden, executive director of the Maryland Association of Counties, briefed Western Maryland county officials on the proposed legislation, which he said the General Assembly will tackle in 2000.

"If you don't like Smart Growth, wait until you see Smart Growth II," Bliden told the Western Maryland Commission during its quarterly meeting in Westminster on Friday. "It will make it easier to develop in already dense areas. There is more potential here for urban counties' interests."

Committees are drafting the legislation to include language on restoration in older, established areas and the creation of greenfields -- self-contained communities that are replicas of towns of the early 20th century. Much of the work has been done, with little input from rural counties, Bliden said.

"It really gets down to the nuts and bolts of local zoning," said John Woolums, associate director of the county association. "What they want is to achieve significantly higher density than what is already in place. For the rural counties, this train has left the station, with us doing the reacting."

The reaction was strong and bitter. Many officials called the initiative punitive to rural areas. "Counties are being punished," said Carroll County Commissioner Donald I. Dell. "If we don't comply, we get no funds."

Smart Growth, the governor's 1997 initiative to control sprawl by directing development to existing communities, has caused problems in rural counties, many members of the group said.

In Washington County, Smart Growth has stalled a campus for the state university system. The state wants to use an abandoned building in downtown Hagerstown, and county officials prefer a 20-acre site along Interstate 70.

"Downtowns have become extra priority areas," said Washington County Commissioner Bertrand Iseminger. "Smart Growth allows the governor to intervene in land-use decisions. Frankly, it offends me. The state is taking more than an advisory role. It is taking on advocacy for downtowns."

The meeting took place at Carroll Community College, a spacious campus along Route 32 with acres of parking, all outside Westminster. Robert Arch, Washington County director of planning, asked whether it would have made sense to put those buildings downtown. "This is becoming a constitutional issue."

Frederick County Commissioner John "Lannie" Thompson said the legislation is making it increasingly difficult for counties to grow. "If it's not Smart Growth, you get no funding for infrastructure," Thompson said. "Either we have no growth at all, or it is so dense that we don't run afoul of the state."

Land-use decisions should be made within local jurisdictions, Bliden said. And he called Smart Growth a misnomer.

"The issue isn't statutory Smart Growth, but the governor's Smart Growth," Bliden said. "It is disingenuous to keep using Smart Growth, when it is really how something is interpreted by the executive branch. The state is basing funding on where it thinks development should go."

Carroll's commissioners asked for suggestions on how rural counties can share in the state's budget surplus before it is dedicated to metropolitan areas.

"If we don't get the money, somebody else will, and we all know where it will go," said Frederick Commissioner Terre Rhoderick.

The Western counties are particularly concerned with transportation funding. Many roads and bridges need immediate repairs. Rhoderick reported on a statewide infrastructure survey that identified $41 billion in replacement needs.

"We remain driven by replacement of existing roads and properties," he said. "A lot of problems we see with roads and schools are now coming to critical mass. They have a surplus, and we have shortages in infrastructure."

The group also discussed water crises, tourism, wastewater treatment, particularly at plants that affect streams, and the impact of nutrient management regulations on farmers. Most of the officials attending would prefer the state take a "hands-off" attitude.

"They often paint the whole state of Maryland with one broad brush," said Garrett County Commissioner Wendell Beitzel.

Pub Date: 8/29/99

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