Ehrlich administration to review home-buying initiative

October 19, 2006|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN REPORTER

A state housing official told legislators yesterday that the Ehrlich administration would review a home-buying assistance program it unveiled this year that critics contend encourages suburban sprawl.

Meanwhile, other administration officials denied that fees Marylanders pay to upgrade sewage treatment plants around the Chesapeake Bay are enabling undesirable growth and development.

Speaking at an Annapolis legislative briefing, Tonna Phelps, director of single-family housing programs for the state Department of Housing and Community Development, said officials would take another look at their "Live Near Your Work Plus" effort.

A revamped version of a home-buying aid program launched in the 1990s, "Live Near Your Work Plus" has come under fire from conservation advocates because it would provide state grants to help people buy homes up to 25 miles from their work places.

"I don't think I ever passed a bill that had 25 miles in it," said Del. Maggie L. McIntosh, who heads the House Environmental Matters Committee.

McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat, had pushed through legislation last year calling on the Ehrlich administration to revive a home-buying assistance program like the one created in 1997 as part of Gov. Parris N. Glendening's anti-sprawl Smart Growth initiative. "Live Near Your Work," as it was called, provided $3,000 grants to 990 home buyers, mostly in Baltimore. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. slashed state funding for that program shortly after he took office.

The new program is more generous, offering grants worth up to 3 percent of the mortgage to help with closing costs on homes costing up to $429,000 - or up to $525,000 in selected areas. But unlike the original program, the grants are not limited to mostly urban neighborhoods targeted for revitalization.

Other state officials defended to lawmakers their handling of the Chesapeake Bay Restoration Fund, popularly known as the "flush tax." An Ehrlich initiative passed by the General Assembly in 2004, the fund gives grants to upgrade sewage plants using $30 annual fees paid by homeowners across the state. More than $75.5 million has been raised.

Half of the first 10 communities getting state grants to improve sewage treatment have also elected to expand plant capacity. Elkton's mayor told The Sun last month that his town couldn't have afforded a bigger sewage plant, enabling a 2,500-home development on its outskirts, without the state grant.

Robert Summers, administrator of water management for the Maryland Department of the Environment, said officials are scrupulous in seeing that "flush tax" funds go only for improvements in waste treatment.

Some counties and municipalities are expanding sewage plants at the same time they are upgrading, Summers acknowledged. But that work is financed separately - through low-interest state loans - and any development enabled is occurring in designated growth areas, as envisioned by the state's Smart Growth laws.

"The bottom line is, MDE grant funds ... are not directed toward new growth," he said.

tim.wheeler@baltsun.com

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