Anti-sprawl program gets more muscle

Governor announces policy of intervention in land-use matters

Empowering Smart Growth

`Aggressive' support of initiative includes possible legal action

May 30, 2001|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

Gov. Parris N. Glendening put local officials on notice yesterday that the state will aggressively challenge land-use actions that encourage sprawl -- including bringing lawsuits against jurisdictions that violate Smart Growth principles.

Dusting off a 1974 law that had partly fallen into disuse, the governor said the state Department of Planning will more actively intervene in major local development decisions.

He pointed to Carroll County's 1999 rezoning of a property known as Rash farm. Glendening has repeatedly criticized the decision, which opened the door to residential development of the 400-acre South Carroll property, as a blatant contravention of his 1997 anti-sprawl initiative.

Under the new policy, state officials will try to persuade local governments not to take such actions -- especially those that could set precedents for further growth -- and could go to court if the administration objects to the outcome.

State planners also will come to the aid of local officials when their pro-Smart Growth decisions are challenged, the governor said. In some cases, that could pit the state against community groups fighting dense development.

The new policy, which Glendening said he expects to stir debate, is intended to put new muscle behind a program he has previously portrayed as voluntary. Critics say the move usurps local authority.

But Glendening, who has made Smart Growth the central theme of his administration, said the "disaster" of sprawl requires the state to intervene in some cases.

"We must be far more aggressive in making sure the state's efforts are not undone by local decisions," he said.

The governor's Smart Growth initiative, which has gained national attention, uses the state's budget to channel development into established neighborhoods and to divert it away from rural areas. The policy of intervening in local disputes takes it a step further by marshaling the state's legal resources behind the effort.

The plan was revealed at a State House news conference called to announce the appointment of Harriet Tregoning, formerly planning secretary, as head of the newly created Office of Smart Growth. Tregoning will be succeeded at the Planning Department by Roy W. Kienitz, executive director of a national advocacy group that promotes mass transit and Smart Growth policies.

Glendening praised the effort of most counties to limit sprawl but took aim at one of his favorite targets -- the all-Republican Carroll County Board of Commissioners. He made it clear that state officials would be watching the commissioners' development decisions in the Liberty Reservoir watershed and could intervene if the county is seen to be promoting development there.

Commissioner Robin Bartlett Frazier, who supported the Rash farm rezoning, reacted sharply to the governor's comments.

"I've been warning my constituents of the Glendening-Townsend high-density, high-crime, Smart Growth power grab," said Frazier. "The governor's comments today prove his dangerous designs toward every property owner in the region."

Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge, president of the three-member board, said the governor's announcement sends a clear signal that the county needs to improve its recently adopted master plan, which incorporates the Rash farm rezoning.

"Yes, we have made some mistakes, but we need to continue to move forward," said Gouge, who opposed the Rash farm rezoning.

Balancing his warning with conciliatory words, the governor said the state will throw its legal resources behind local governments that zone planned-growth areas for high-density development. He mentioned the example of the Greenbelt area of Prince George's County, where neighbors have objected to plans to concentrate development around the Metro station -- an approach the administration considers consistent with Smart Growth.

Glendening sought to reassure local officials that the state will limit its role to important cases. "The Department of Planning will not function as a super zoning board or a people's counsel," he said.

David Bliden, executive director of the Maryland Association of Counties, said local officials' reaction will depend on how the authority is used. He said the governor has consistently assured county officials that Smart Growth would not infringe on their autonomy.

"I'm not sure how it shakes out in the long run. The positives might offset the negatives even if there are negatives," he said.

Jim McElfish, senior attorney at the Environmental Law Institute in Washington, said Glendening's decision is "noteworthy" because "probably fewer than a dozen" states have the power to contest local zoning decisions.

"To me, this reflects an attempt to use all the powers at the disposal of the state in the service of Smart Growth," McElfish said. "This is something that Maryland has clearly been in the forefront of."

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