Merdon unveils `green' plans

Proposals include creating small parks

September 20, 2006|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,sun reporter

County Council Chairman Christopher J. Merdon added an environmental element to his campaign for county executive with a package of four suggestions announced this week.

"My goal is to enlist the help of a task force of environmentalists, business people and interested citizens to help me create a `Green Plan' for Howard County government," the Republican nominee said.

Some community leaders were skeptical of the ideas, while Merdon's two rivals for executive ridiculed them as politically inspired.

Merdon's suggestions include:

Diverting money from little-used agricultural preservation funds to create small parks in older neighborhoods.

Using money that developers have paid as fees to avoid reforestation for a "more aggressive" program to plant 50,000 trees, including some on private property.

Exploring ways to use methane gas produced by trash underground at county landfills to generate electricity. Methane is now burned off at the closed New Cut landfill, next to Worthington Elementary School.

Buying alternative fuel or hybrid vehicles for the county's nonemergency, diesel-operated fleet when replacements occur.

Merdon, who has held a series of campaign announcements as a way to promote his ideas for change, promised that, if elected, the executive's vehicle will be either a hybrid or powered by an alternative fuel.

The diversion of farmland preservation money would require General Assembly action, he said, but the change would serve two major goals -- reducing development and thus congestion in older neighborhoods and providing more neighborhood play areas. Residents have told him that they resent new homes being built on small parcels, he said.

"Every vacant lot is being taken up by high-density development and they're tired of that," he said voters have told him. "We've lost the concept of a small neighborhood park," he said.

The county has spent most preservation money in the rural western county, but farmers have been reluctant to participate, he said, and funds are going unused.

But not everyone likes that idea.

Angela Beltram, leader of a citizens group angry about development in Merdon's Ellicott City council district, said she favors tighter restrictions on so-called infill development.

"They ought to just change the infill law," she said, adding, "I'm not sure we should use preservation money to do it."

Joy Levy, who administers the county's $27 million preservation program, said she is hoping to recruit some new farms now that the county's top price has doubled to $40,000 an acre. The registration period for applicants began Sept. 1, she said, and runs until Nov. 15. The county has not enrolled a new farm in the program since 2002.

Mary Catherine Cochran, president of Preservation Howard County, liked the idea of preserving suburban lots but said it might "be a pretty hard sell to put agricultural money in a residential area."

Ken Ulman, the Democratic candidate for executive, said Merdon's suggestions come "after eight years of ignoring the environment."

Merdon was one of two council Republicans who opposed Ulman's 2003 bill to have the county pay up to 5 percent more to buy recycled paper products, Ulman said.

"I'm glad with 50 days left on his time in the County Council he finally proposed something positive on infill development. It's about time he's taken notice."

C. Stephen Wallis, the independent candidate for executive, denounced campaign proposals from Republicans and Democrats as "idle rhetoric."

"Certainly the public sees the disingenuousness of these tactics," he said. "It's insulting to the public."

Wallis suggested that buying suburban lots to remove them from development could put even more pressure for housing in the rural west.

As for planting 50,000 trees, he said, "I can't imagine doing it that fast. Saving older trees might be a better tack, he said.

Converting methane gas to electricity may not be practical, he said.

Marsha McLaughlin, county planning director, said, "The concept of adding green space in existing neighborhoods is a good idea," though she did not comment on Merdon's specific suggestion.

Gary J. Arthur, county recreation and parks director, said the county now plants about 7,000 trees a year and might have trouble finding contractors to plant 50,000. He said the county would like to have more small neighborhood parks, however.

Cochran said that developers should not be able to pay a cash fee instead of planting trees.

"Require developers to reforest where they develop," she said.

Public Works Director James Irvin said the county has never looked at buying alternative-fuel vehicles, though it has been

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