Growth bills meet opposition

State, environmental groups fight proposals on water sources, building

March 03, 2007|By Laura McCandlish | Laura McCandlish,Sun Reporter

State officials have joined environmental groups in opposing two growth bills in the legislature - one that would tap into water under state parks and another that would relax the state's Smart Growth law - which proponents say would permit needed homes to be built and opponents assert would contribute to sprawl.

Counting preserved land as part of a watershed to enable nearby communities draw more from their wells has prompted criticism that the bills submitted by Sen. David R. Brinkley would not be a permanent solution.

Using state property to find water won't meet the demand created by the 1 million residents expected to relocate to Maryland by 2030, said M. Gordon Wolman, a water resources expert at the Johns Hopkins University.

"The proposed solution is not adequate for the expected level of growth in the state," Wolman said. "What this does in many ways is encourage the acquisition of land or water theoretically reserved for other purposes, including the protection of ecology in state watershed areas."

Brinkley's bills are not the first time that a proposal to use water from state property has been suggested. The administration of former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. considered a policy to lease or sell water on and under state land to towns in Western Maryland.

Critics feared that the policy would lead to development on the borders of public parks. Brinkley's bills also invoke Ehrlich's abandoned plans to sell property in and around state parks as surplus land, said Richard Eberhart Hall, the state's acting planning secretary.

Instead of overpumping their aquifers, the groundwater-dependent counties of Carroll, Frederick and Washington should look aboveground to streams and existing or potential reservoirs, said Robert Summers, deputy secretary of the Maryland Department of the Environment.

The departments of the environment and planning joined 1000 Friends of Maryland this week in Annapolis, testifying against Brinkley's second bill, which would allow rural regions to qualify as "priority funding areas." The Smart Growth law funnels growth to more developed areas.

Brinkley, who represents Frederick and Carroll counties and is the Senate minority leader, said Middletown's ineligibility for state funds to develop annexed land prompted the bill.

Given the opposition to his groundwater bill, Brinkley said he hopes legislators would at least approve an amended local bill.

"We're just trying to pull out all the stops to help these communities," said Brinkley, who co-sponsored the bill with Republican senators from Carroll and Washington counties. "The current situation encourages sprawl. There's been no willingness to step up to the plate and offer a solution."

The tiny Carroll County city of Taneytown asked Brinkley to sponsor the water bill.

Unless the state increases Taneytown's well permits, growth will shut down there, City Manager Jim Schumacher said. Taneytown could purchase groundwater rights from surrounding land, but municipalities shouldn't have to waste taxpayer money to do so, Schumacher said.

"The water is already there," he said. "All we're asking is for [the Department of the Environment] to allow appropriations of water based on lands that cannot be developed."

New state requirements have limited the amount communities can draw from their wells, based on drought conditions. But reducing municipal water allocation would force well and septic development out into the countryside, Brinkley and Carroll County officials have said.

In Westminster, the regulations put a building moratorium in place in September until new water sources are secured to relieve a deficit.

In addition to the departments of the environment and planning, natural resources and agricultural officials and environmental groups, from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation to the Maryland League of Conservation Voters, opposed Brinkley's water bill in a Senate hearing last week.

Rather than hand over a state park's water rights, opponents said that conservation should first be stressed.

"It just somehow seems perverse to take water from an area we've preserved," said Dru Schmidt-Perkins, director of 1000 Friends of Maryland, which advocates preservation of rural land. "The way we got ourselves in trouble with development is looking at everything - water, schools, transportation, farm preservation - in isolation. We've got to stop looking at it piecemeal."

It is hoped that these factions will work out a compromise, Schumacher said. Perhaps 5 percent of a preserved property - not the entire piece - would be considered in calculating how much groundwater is available for an adjacent city or town, he said.

Hall said that such scenarios might be possible, to a degree. But overhauling state law isn't necessary, he said.

"It may be a town works out a relationship with a property owner, like a farmer on the edge of town," Hall said. "There might be other ways to fix this problem that are probably on the table. We just need to look at it community by community."

laura.mccandlish@baltsun.com

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