Bay group unveils plan of action

Advice to governor: curb growth and runoff from farms

September 20, 2006|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,Sun reporter

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation says the next governor of Maryland needs to rein in growth, help farmers control pollution and better manage storm water runoff if the state is to have any hope of improving the bay's health.

The Annapolis-based group unveiled its legislative blueprint yesterday, which it billed as free advice for any gubernatorial candidate running for office. And with Maryland slated to elect a new comptroller, attorney general and senator for the first time in decades, foundation officials see an opportunity to extract new commitments for environmental priorities.

"The leaders we elect can make significant progress, or they can preside over a failed effort to save the bay," said Chesapeake Bay Foundation president William C. Baker.

Many of the recommendations center on land-based approaches. The foundation wants Maryland to embrace regional planning authorities, in which a group of local officials from an area decide whether to approve new developments.

Under the current system, a county or town, no matter how small, has the authority to build what it wants within its borders and can even annex land in from a county to grow further. "Decisions are made locally, and sometimes that's appropriate, but when we look at large mega-developments, the regional impacts cannot be disputed," said Kim Coble, the foundation's Maryland executive director.

Coble pointed to the Blackwater project, a plan to turn 1,000 acres of farmland and wetlands near a wildlife refuge into a 2,700-home resort community, as an example of a huge project that was decided locally but will affect an entire region. The development's new residents, many of whom are expected to drive frequently to the Washington area, will use county and state roads. The foundation has been protesting the project, which cleared local hurdles but still needs the approval of the state Critical Areas Commission.

For regional planning to work, local jurisdictions would have to give up some power - something they have not wanted to do in Maryland, which has always decided planning and zoning issues at the county or town level. But states such as Oregon have set up regional planning authorities. Even Pennsylvania, which has more than 2,500 municipalities, has begun to plan regionally.

Coble suggested that Maryland also look north for leadership to help farmers -- Pennsylvania is considering a bill to give tax relief to businesses that subsidize farmers' nutrient management plans.

The foundation has long praised Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. for helping to push through the "flush tax," which is raising money to upgrade sewage treatment. And last year, it sued the Environmental Protection Agency for failing to place limits on how much sewage can be discharged into the bay. Yesterday, Baker and Coble called on state and federal leaders to also place limits on storm water discharge permits.

Whether Ehrlich or his challenger, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, prevails in the election, the biggest challenge for all bay cleanup initiatives will be funding, Coble said. The foundation proposes a dedicated fund to finance its priorities, suggesting that millions of dollars could be raised by increasing the Bay Bridge toll by a dollar or charging an extra $2 or $5 for landfill tipping fees.

William Matuszeski, former head of the federal-state Chesapeake Bay Program, said all of the foundation's proposals are good ideas, but the most important one is the dedicated funding source. Without the money, he said, Maryland's leaders will be able to accomplish very little.

"We know what has to be done. We know the most cost-effective way to do it," he said. "What we don't have is the money."

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