Outcry reinforces importance of Balto. County growth line

Water, sewer resolution weakens border, critics say

April 03, 2005|By Timothy B. Wheeler and Lisa Goldberg | Timothy B. Wheeler and Lisa Goldberg,SUN STAFF

Driving north on Interstate 83, it doesn't take long for the scenery to change suddenly from office parks, strip malls and suburban housing to rolling countryside. Not far beyond the Beltway, Baltimore's most populous suburban county retains a distinctly rural flavor - with two-thirds of its landscape still in fields, pasture and forest.

The reason: Long before Smart Growth became Maryland policy, Baltimore County officials drew an invisible line through their county to rein in the development that was pushing out from the city.

The Urban-Rural Demarcation Line exists only on planners' maps. But since its establishment in 1967, the URDL has functioned like the girdle with which the acronym rhymes, squeezing 90 percent of the county's population in around the Beltway while preserving the farmland and trout streams that have become a rarity elsewhere in the Baltimore region.

The line, and restrictive zoning imposed in the 1970s to enforce it, have earned Baltimore County national recognition as a pioneer in the fight against suburban sprawl. Along the way, the growth boundary also has become a "third rail" of county politics, something that elected officials touch at their peril.

"Mother, God, country and URDL - it's something you don't fool around with," said Bill Bralove, president of RENEW Inc., an umbrella community group representing residents of Randallstown and Owings Mills.

Baltimore County Council members were reminded recently just how hazardous it can be even to appear to be tampering with the growth boundary. They drafted a resolution saying the council could extend water and sewer lines whenever it deemed appropriate to serve neighborhoods beyond the line that rely on wells and septic systems.

Taken aback by protests, council members withdrew their original resolution and replaced it last week with another spelling out that water and sewer extensions would be approved only for health reasons or to serve areas along the Chesapeake Bay shoreline where septic systems are likely to foul the water.

But even that drew flak from civic activists, who still called it too vague. By week's end, only two council members remained as sponsors - making passage uncertain when it comes up for a vote tomorrow.

The original resolution - coupled with a proposal to provide utilities for pricey new housing on Holly Neck peninsula jutting into Chesapeake Bay - sparked an uproar among community activists.

"I'm afraid this would really open up the County Council to a lot more [development] pressure," said Teresa Moore, executive director of the Valleys Planning Council. "It will put them in a tough position, because so many people would be leaning on them to approve extensions."

It also drew a reproof from state Planning Secretary Audrey E. Scott, who wrote county officials voicing her "serious concern" that the move would "undermine Smart Growth" - the state policy that aims to funnel development into already built-up areas.

County officials say they never meant to tamper with the growth boundary - only to clarify the council's authority to provide water and sewer service to some neighborhoods beyond the line.

The resolution grew out of a two-year-old dispute with the state over its refusal to let the county extend water and sewer lines to four neighborhoods outside the line, despite what county officials said was past state practice of granting such requests.

Councilman Kevin Kamenetz, a Pikesville-Ruxton Democrat, protested the denial - noting that two of the thwarted communities that he represents are just beyond the Beltway, built out and already surrounded by public water and sewer.

State officials acknowledge that they have approved previous extensions of water and sewer beyond Baltimore County's growth boundary, but they contend that all of those were to hook up homes with contaminated wells or failing septic tanks.

State law requires utility service to be provided in concert with a locality's master plan - a development blueprint revised every six years. State officials say that exceptions are made for public health or environmental reasons, but there was no evidence of that in these four communities.

"Water and sewer is one of the few tools that the state has to manage growth," said Charles Gates, state Planning Department spokesman.

Arnold F. "Pat" Keller III, Baltimore County's planning director, said residents' alarm over the council's move was understandable, given the vague wording of the resolution. But he contended that elected officials over the decades have been steadfast in maintaining the county's growth boundary. In the nearly 40 years since the URDL was created, the line has moved very little, Keller said.

"You have to figure it's the people's will to preserve it, it's become so ingrained," Keller said.

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