Differing approaches to growth management

Candidates differ on facing growth


November 06, 2006|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,Sun reporter

On the western edge of downtown Baltimore, boarded-up rowhouses and vacant lots define Poppleton, a once-vibrant inner-city neighborhood on the verge of a radical transformation.

By next year, demolition is to begin on hundreds of vacant homes there to make way for a new $300 million community of single-family homes, townhouses and apartments. Poppleton's redevelopment is a priority of both Mayor Martin O'Malley and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

The project illustrates the similarities and differences in how the two contenders for governor have attempted to manage Maryland's burgeoning growth. With military base realignment expected to bring thousands of new jobs -- and households -- to Maryland in the next several years, polls show growth is a major concern of voters this election year.

"People want to actually see changes," said Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of 1000 Friends of Maryland, a group that advocates compact development and rural land preservation. "People are seeing the links to schools, traffic, and taxes. They want to see solutions."

Both gubernatorial candidates back redevelopment of older communities as a way to rein in the expansion of exurbia. But in their records, and their rhetoric, they differ in significant ways in how they would achieve it.

The Ehrlich administration stresses its efforts to forge partnerships with local governments, a stance state officials contend has yielded results. But environmentalists and conservation advocates assert that the Republican administration has been largely passive in the face of intense development pressures, particularly with large housing projects proposed on the Eastern Shore and in Western Maryland.

O'Malley and his aides promise that if he is elected the state will be more aggressive in seeking to manage growth. They point to successes they have had in redeveloping blighted urban neighborhoods in Baltimore. Some city neighborhood leaders, however, say they see troubling signs that the Democratic mayor is too pliant with developers, at the expense of the city's historic buildings.

The fifth-most-densely populated state in the country, Maryland is projected by the U.S. Census Bureau to grow from 5.5 million people in 2005 to 7 million by 2030. Political and legal restrictions on the pace of development in many suburban counties mean many of those people will wind up looking for housing either in cities, or in former farm fields where there currently are few building restrictions.

Though he initially slashed funding and staff for his predecessor's pioneering Smart Growth efforts, Ehrlich has declared his support for curbing sprawl, albeit in his own way. Two years ago, he launched "Priority Places," a program offering the state's technical and regulatory help to redevelopment projects in older towns and urban neighborhoods, including Poppleton in Baltimore.

"I think we've done something that has not been done before -- revitalizing our older communities so people don't want to move out to agricultural or rural communities," said Audrey Scott, state planning secretary.

Administration officials also point to legislative reforms they achieved to boost redevelopment of 159 former industrial sites, known as "brownfields," totaling nearly 2,500 acres. They also point to plans for transit-oriented development on state-owned land around the region, including the State Center complex in downtown Baltimore.

But the administration has given little financial help to its signature "Priority Places" program. Poppleton's redevelopment, for instance, is moving forward almost solely on funding from Baltimore and the city's partnership with a private developer.

"I'm still waiting to see any real benefit," Paul T. Graziano, head of the city's Department of Housing and Community Development, said of Poppleton's designation by the state. Graziano is an O'Malley appointee.

The Ehrlich administration's versions of old Smart Growth programs also have drawn fire. "Live Near Your Work," a pioneering home-buying assistance program, has been broadened -- or weakened, in the views of some -- to help people buy homes within 25 miles of their jobs.

Ehrlich administration officials say they have worked with local officials to improve their growth plans, while cracking down, when necessary, on a few municipalities -- such as Westminster and Mount Airy in Carroll County, and Queenstown in Queen Anne's County -- for letting home building outrun available water supplies or sewage treatment.

But others fault the Ehrlich administration for not doing more to discourage development in outlying areas, particularly the Blackwater Resort project in Dorchester County and the Terrapin Run proposal in Allegany County.

The state Planning Department approved the city of Cambridge's plan for the resort project near Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, saying it was legally obliged to. A state commission overseeing Chesapeake Bay waterfront development has since disapproved the plan.

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