Panels would target growth

State bill would create regional authorities to rule on large projects

January 05, 2007|By Tom Pelton and Timothy B. Wheeler | Tom Pelton and Timothy B. Wheeler,sun reporters

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation is pushing legislation to control suburban sprawl in Maryland by creating regional authorities that could overrule local governments and veto large development projects.

Proponents say the goal is to promote regional planning and avoid clashes such as the one last year over the Blackwater Resort, a proposed 3,200-home development that initially was approved by local government, then criticized as too large and too close to a wildlife refuge. It was eventually scaled back to 675 homes.

"What's become clear to us is [that] these very large, mega-developments really have regional impacts, and we need to look at them from a regional perspective," said Kim Coble, a foundation director.

Under the legislation, seven planning committees made up of local and state officials would represent zones from the Eastern Shore to Western Maryland and vote on large projects. These authorities would also write comprehensive plans for their regions and add a second level of government scrutiny to what now are local decisions.

Vermont has used regional planning commissions since the 1970s. A similar program in Florida was watered down.

Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat, said he plans to introduce a bill to create the regional authorities during the General Assembly session that begins next week. He said he hopes such a law would lead to better coordination between the city and Baltimore County about traffic and other problems caused by large developments.

Others sympathetic to the goal of fighting sprawl predict strong resistance from developers who don't want more regulation and from local government officials who don't want to lose power.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch, a Democrat, said a better approach might be to enforce the Smart Growth laws created by former Gov. Parris N. Glendening in 1997 but largely ignored by the Ehrlich administration.

These laws allow local governments to designate areas where they would like to see growth and then let governors refuse to appropriate state money for roads or sewers in areas they deem inappropriate. "You have some of the foremost legislation in the country with Smart Growth," Busch said.

Coble said the regional authorities would fix a loophole in the Smart Growth laws, which can't block developers who don't request state money for roads or sewers. "Developers are simply buying their way around the Smart Growth legislation, and that's not in the best interests of the state," Coble said.

Spokesmen for homebuilders and local officials saw little to like in the proposal. Tom Ballentine, legislative director for the Home Builders of Maryland, said he feared regional planning authorities would make it "difficult or impossible" to get large developments approved.

"Maple Lawn Farms had 36 hearings in Howard County," Ballentine said, referring to a 500-acre mix of homes, shops and offices that won approval only after its density was curtailed. "That then presumably would have to go through a regional approval? That just sounds unworkable to me."

David Bliden, executive director of the Maryland Association of Counties, said the regional authorities would remove land-use decisions from the people most affected by them. "Citizens deserve better than a regional growth agency which is not accountable to the voters," he said.

The regional authorities proposed by the bay foundation would answer to voters in the sense that local elected governments would appoint members to the committees, Coble said.

Baltimore Democratic Del. Maggie McIntosh, who chairs the House Environmental Matters Committee, said she "likes the concept" of regional planning, noting that Prince George's and Montgomery counties coordinate on transportation issues. But, she added, the proposed authorities would have to be structured so they do not "chip away" at local government power.

Vermont since the early 1970s has broken the state into seven zones, each with district commissions whose members are appointed by the governor to review and approve permits for large developments.

John Hall, Vermont's commissioner of housing and community affairs, said these committees usually defer to the preferences of local officials. But, he said, in a few cases it has been good for the state to take some power away from local governments, because air and water pollution travels across municipal boundaries.

"A town with a depressed economy might ... say it's willing to take negative environmental effects to get jobs," Hall said. "But a regional approach looks at the broader scope and says, `This may look good now, but it doesn't make long-term sense.'"

In Florida, regional planning councils have had a mixed history, said Charles Pattison, president of an environmental group called 1000 Friends of Florida. Created in 1975 with authority to approve or reject large developments, the councils were later stripped of their veto power and made largely advisory.

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