O'Malley seeks modest changes to Smart Growth

January 12, 2009|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,tim.wheeler@baltsun.com

After vowing to invigorate Maryland's toothless Smart Growth program, Gov. Martin O'Malley plans to ask the legislature for only modest changes - far short of the overhaul that activists say is needed to curb suburban sprawl and halt the decline of the Chesapeake Bay.

The governor intends to seek legislation reversing a court ruling that freed local officials from having to heed their own master plans when making growth decisions. He also wants to add new goals to the state planning law, and to require local governments to track more information on how growth is occurring in their communities.

But with local officials unwilling to give up any of their traditional control over development, O'Malley is not proposing any new state mandates or limits on sprawl. Nor is he pushing to close loopholes in the 12-year-old Smart Growth law, under which the state still helps build schools and some roads in outlying areas - despite supposedly limiting state construction funding to existing communities.

That worries environmental advocates, who say sprawling development is one of the chief causes of the Chesapeake's decline. Across the bay region, new asphalt and concrete claim an area the size of Baltimore every two years.

"The house is burning down, and the solution appears to be to throw water on one closet," Gerald Winegrad, a former state senator from Annapolis, said of O'Malley's proposals. "This isn't going to change anything."

A Chesapeake Bay Foundation land-use expert also found the governor's proposals wanting. "There's not a lot of beef," said Alan Girard, a project manager with the Annapolis-based environmental group.

O'Malley is scheduled to announce his "smart, green and growing" legislative agenda at an Annapolis news conference today.

State Planning Secretary Richard E. Hall briefed local officials on the plan last week at the Maryland Association of Counties meeting in Cambridge. He acknowledged in an interview that some might see the administration bills as "fairly modest" because they contain no concrete requirements. But they set a framework for better planning, he said, and politically are what is "within the realm of possibility."

"Will this matter for the bay? Yes." he said. "If we don't do what we're trying to do, trying to grow smart is going to become even more challenging."

The governor's legislative agenda follows the recommendations of a broad-based task force he appointed that has spent the past year studying Maryland's growth trends and policies.

The 21-member panel of developers, local officials, environmentalists and others recommends "corrective legislation" after a Court of Appeals decision last year. The court ruled that Allegany County did not have to follow its own master plan in approving Terrapin Run, a proposed 4,300-home community next to Green Ridge State Forest and far from public water and sewer. The ruling cast doubt on the value of communities' comprehensive plans, development blueprints that are updated every six years with extensive public input.

Among other recommendations of the task force:

* Update the state's 1992 planning law with an expanded set of 12 "visions" for compact and environmentally sustainable growth. All local governments would be expected to abide by those goals in charting future development of their communities, though local officials have been free to interpret the law's existing eight visions as they see fit.

* Develop a commonly accepted set of "indicators" for state and local officials to track, such as how much development is occurring in designated growth areas and how much farmland is preserved.

Local officials are warily awaiting the bills, while making it clear they will oppose anything that diminishes their authority over land use.

"We know the issues in our counties. We know the lay of the land," said Jan Gardner, president of the Frederick County commissioners and a member of the task force. "One size does not fit all."

Hall assured local officials that the administration is not trying to be "super-prescriptive." Environmental advocates indicated that they would seek to strengthen the governor's bills if he does not propose tying state funding or some other consequence to how communities measure up on their "indicators" for growth.

"Everybody recognizes 'visions' don't do anything unless they're tied to actual outcomes," said Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of 1000 Friends of Maryland.

The task force also urged requiring less-polluting but more costly septic systems for all new homes built beyond the reach of sewer lines. But this proposal has not been among the growth bills circulated by the administration.

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