Rt. 32 widening called killer of Smart Growth

Howard highway project exempted from anti-sprawl rules at Ehrlich's behest

July 22, 2004|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Led by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a divided state Board of Public Works exempted a contentious western Howard County highway project from tough anti-sprawl regulations yesterday, raising conservationists' concerns about the future of Maryland's nationally celebrated Smart Growth laws.

Citizen groups and residents implored the governor to honor restrictions barring the widening of a 9-mile section of Route 32, fretting that construction would lead to a loss of farms and open space in Howard, Carroll and Frederick counties.

Their arguments failed.

"This is the death knell for Smart Growth in the Ehrlich administration," said Del. Neil F. Quinter, a Howard Democrat. "Maryland, to this point, has been the national leader in Smart Growth. But you'd be hard-pressed to say we are after this decision."

Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth in Washington, called the board action a "terrible precedent" and predicted the highway would sap vitality from the region's major cities.

"Essentially, what Maryland is busy doing is building a series of ring roads," he said. "You make this much cheap green land available away from Baltimore and away from Washington, and you are hurting the economic futures of both cities."

Maintaining that the project would improve safety on the stretch of highway between Interstate 70 and Route 108, Ehrlich urged the board to bypass state regulations so his Transportation Department can seek federal money for the widening.

"I'm concerned as a function of safety," Ehrlich said. "It's a tough call. You want to preserve what can be preserved."

The Transportation Department and the governor relied on a catch-all exemption in the law that allows rural construction under "extraordinary circumstances."

"If you can make an exception for this, you can make an exception for just about anything," Schwartz said.

Despite the governor's assertion, statistics show that accident rates have dropped on Route 32 after recent improvements, which include turn lanes and rumble strips to keep drivers alert.

But backed by business groups, the Ehrlich administration has been eager to revive projects that have languished for years.

"There is no reasonable alternative here," said state transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan. "Not building would create an undue hardship."

The long-studied Howard project has divided politicians and homeowners. The segment would be the final stretch of Route 32 to be upgraded, providing ready access for trucks and cars between Western Maryland and the Interstate 97 gateway to Annapolis and the Eastern Shore.

Lawmakers representing western Howard told Ehrlich the road was needed. Del. Warren E. Miller, a Republican, said a high school classmate died in an accident on the road. Existing zoning and land preservation rules in Howard would prevent runaway growth, he said.

The road's heaviest users, said Republican Sen. Robert H. Kittleman of Howard, would come from outside the county. The project would allow residents of designated growth areas, such as Urbana in Frederick County and Freedom in Carroll, to get improved access to jobs and shopping, he said.

"If we don't do this, what we are doing is cutting off Carroll County to the outside world," Kittleman said.

But critics said construction plans shelved under Democratic Gov. Parris N. Glendening, considered the father of the state's anti-sprawl movement, have been revived too rapidly by the Ehrlich administration. Yesterday's vote, coming during the summer vacation season and with little public input, should have been delayed, they said.

Ehrlich joined a representative of Comptroller William Donald Schaefer in approving just the second roads exemption to the 1997 Smart Growth laws. Schaefer did not attend the meeting because of a family funeral.

The first growth-law exemption: a bypass road in Manchester, Carroll County, in 1999.

State Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp, the third board member, opposed the exemption yesterday, saying transportation officials did not make the case that they had considered other options or that road conditions met the law's hardship threshold.

The sprawl laws, in part, prohibit spending state money outside of areas designated for growth by counties.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the Citizens Housing and Planning Association opposed the exemption.

"What the legislature decided in 1997 was that business-as-usual has gotten us sprawl," said Daniel Pontious, regional policy director for the association. "If this is a precedent where all these are going to get passed by the board, we could be back to business-as-usual."

Transportation officials said they anticipate similar road projects could come up roughly every other year.

Construction on Route 32 is not imminent. Officials said it could take 20 years and at least $200 million to convert what statistics show is the state's busiest two-lane road into a modern highway, and legislative approval and public input are still required.

Furthermore, growth rules have clouded a continuing federal assessment of the project, said Marsha Kaiser, director of planning and capital programs for the Maryland Department of Transportation. "We need to have smart growth legislation addressed in our environmental document to the federal government," she said.

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