Growth halt overdue

July 25, 2006

The Annapolis city council has imposed a one-year timeout for approving major new development until regulations can be approved to assure the small historic town can accommodate it. Critics variously complain the moratorium is too harsh, too weak, too politically motivated. That suggests the move is probably about right.

Certainly, an ordinance requiring that adequate roads, parking, water and sewer service and other public facilities are in place before granting new building permits is long overdue. In its haste to encourage economic growth and boost tax revenues, the city has welcomed monster complexes of mixed residential and commercial use with too little concern for their impact on the community.

Anne Arundel County officials have only aggravated the problem by approving another behemoth on the city's western perimeter in Parole.

Sadly, it's too late to scale back any of those long-approved projects or dozens more already in the pipeline. But critics who contend the moratorium is thus a hollow political move aren't advocating a tougher policy, for fear of sending a negative signal to private investors. Those critics include Annapolis Mayor Ellen O. Moyer, who says the city is being unfairly tarred for the Parole project, which was outside its control.

Indeed, the moratorium drive was led by Josh Cohen, an ambitious young alderman now seeking the Annapolis-area seat on the County Council. But those who charge him with exploiting the issue for political gain pay him a compliment. They confirm that he may be more in sync with the views of Annapolis voters than officials who seem to be listening only to deep-pocketed developers.

Such a moratorium, however weak or impractical it may be now, wouldn't be appealing if the city and county governments had said "no" a few more times on their own.

Devising an adequate facilities ordinance that suits the city and actually delivers on its promise - which clearly isn't always the case for such regulations in the county - will be an enormous challenge. Annapolis is both the state capital and the county seat, as well as home to two large college campuses and a sizable historic district. In addition to its tourist attractions, Annapolis must maintain a thriving commercial core of groceries, dry cleaners, auto repair shops and the like to serve the residential neighborhoods. But with the city about to begin an update of its comprehensive zoning plan, the timing for applying the overlay of an adequate facilities ordinance may turn out to be quite apt.

To be successful, city officials must keep in mind that managing growth should put a priority on maintaining or even improving the quality of life in Annapolis rather than simply selling it out to the highest bidder.

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