A call to act before job influx

New defense workers will strain resources and services, report says

January 27, 2007|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,Sun reporter

Using some of their frankest language to date, state planners warn in a newly released report that the surge of new workers and their families coming to Maryland because of military base realignment could strain water supplies, snarl traffic and contribute to the region's sprawl.

The report by the Maryland Department of Planning - the most detailed look yet at the impact of the military base shuffle - says state and local officials need to take "significant steps now" to prepare for more than 25,000 new households expected to move to the state over the next eight years as up to 60,000 defense and contractor jobs relocate to Aberdeen Proving Ground, Fort Meade and other facilities.

"We want to be able to accommodate these jobs, but we also want to maintain the quality of life that Marylanders expect," Richard Eberhart Hall, acting secretary of planning, said in an interview yesterday. "Accomplishing both of those is going to be tough."

Growth-management advocates and others have warned that the Pentagon's nationwide military job shuffle could bring problems as well as wealth to Maryland communities. But this 300-page report, which state officials have refused to release for months, represents the first official and most detailed acknowledgement of the extent of the challenges to accommodating the growth.

Michael Hayes, director of military and federal affairs for the state Department of Business and Economic Development, which commissioned the report, has said its release was being held in an effort to get better estimates of the impact.

The report offers no cost estimates, but calls for expediting highway and transit projects and some water system upgrades to avoid traffic and development bottlenecks and preserve rural land in rapidly suburbanizing counties.

The price tag to taxpayers is likely to run into billions of dollars. Anne Arundel County alone is seeking $5 billion in highway widenings and transit upgrades around Fort Meade, though the federal government normally pays the vast majority of the tab on such projects.

The report also urges local officials to begin planning now for extra classroom space to accommodate the base-related growth, and it warns of potential restrictions on sewage plant expansions, which could limit growth around the proving ground and Fort Meade.

Hall, tapped by Gov. Martin O'Malley to be planning secretary, noted that the base-related growth would add to already significant development pressures in much of the Baltimore-Washington region.

"What we don't want to see happen is have growth be deflected," Hall said, where low-density development would consume more farmland and forests.

Harford County faces the greatest growth pressures, says the report. With most workers expected to want to live within a 45-mile commute of their jobs, planners project 6,533 households will settle in the county around APG. As many as 8,200 additional workers are expected at the post, with up to twice that number working for defense contractors and related businesses on or around the 72,000-acre installation.

Families moving to Harford to take base-related jobs could buy up more than two-thirds of the high-quality housing expected to be built or for sale in the county's designated growth area, the plan cautions. But the county's plans to concentrate those new households could be foiled by lack of infrastructure, the report cautions.

Harford and its municipalities face water-supply limits or shortages, the report says. Bel Air's water capacity is inadequate, planners say, and they warn that Aberdeen's plans to solve its looming supply crunch by desalinating Chesapeake Bay water might not get approved and completed before new workers and their families start arriving.

The report says there is "an increased urgency for plans and actions now" to finance and build new water-supply and sewage treatment capacity, highway and transit improvements and classroom space.

"If ... development occurs without this investment," it adds, "the likely consequences are further threats to rural land preservation in the county and/or further deflection of growth outwards to surrounding jurisdictions, specifically Cecil County in Maryland or out of state (Pennsylvania and Delaware)."

A commission appointed 14 months ago by Harford County Executive David R. Craig announced this week that it will unveil an "action plan" Monday for coping with base-related growth.

James C. Richardson, Harford's economic development director, said the county has plans to expand its water and sewage treatment system and is in the process of rewriting its zoning code to address concerns about the housing stock and sprawl. With workers set to begin arriving in two to four years, he noted, "we don't have the luxury of a long lead period here, on any of this stuff."

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