Howard road expansion doesn't violate Smart Growth, judge says

July 02, 2005|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

In a victory for the Ehrlich administration, a Howard County Circuit Court judge threw out a lawsuit yesterday accusing state officials of violating Maryland's Smart Growth law with plans to widen a congested two-lane road serving the region's sprawling western suburbs.

After a brief hearing on the legal issues, Judge Lenore Gelfman dismissed the lawsuit filed by 1000 Friends of Maryland and a Clarksville resident, which had sought to block state funding for the expansion of Route 32 in western Howard County.

The conservation group and Nancy Davis, who lives near the highway, sued in January, alleging that the state Board of Public Works acted illegally last year in exempting the widening project from the Smart Growth law.

With only limited exceptions, the law bars state funding for roads and other public improvements if they are outside of designated growth areas.

The $200 million project would turn the heavily traveled 9-mile stretch of Route 32 between Route 108 and Interstate 70 into a four-lane highway.

Although not in a designated growth area, state transportation officials contend the widening is needed to reduce congestion and improve safety on the busiest two-lane roadway in Maryland.

"It's wonderful news for everyone who travels on Route 32," Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan said yesterday after the judge's ruling.

The Board of Public Works, made up of the governor, comptroller and treasurer, voted 2-1 July 21 to exempt the project from the Smart Growth law, citing a catch-all provision allowing funding for projects outside Smart Growth areas when "extraordinary circumstances" exist and there are no reasonable alternatives.

Supporting the widening were Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and a representative of Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, who said the need to reduce accidents on the road trumped concerns about the project encouraging sprawl. Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp was opposed.

The project's opponents argued in the lawsuit that the board's decision should be overturned because it did not spell out the basis for exempting the project from the law.

They also argued that Schaefer, who skipped the meeting to attend a funeral, could not legally delegate someone else to cast his vote for him.

Linda D. Strozyk, an assistant attorney general representing the board, argued yesterday that the lawsuit should be dismissed. After listening to both sides, Gelfman ruled from the bench that the law did not require the board to explain its decision in detail, and that Schaefer could delegate his vote.

G. Macy Nelson, lawyer for the project's opponents, said they planned to appeal the decision.

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