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O'Malley's bold proposals on environment face sizable challenges

When O'Malley discussed the issue Thursday with a delegation of mostly hostile state legislators representing the Eastern Shore, Sen. E.J. Pipkin (R-Queen Anne's) told him, "By those two careless sentences [in the speech] you wiped out a trillion dollars of land value in rural Maryland."

O'Malley responded, "I didn't see it that way. I saw it as immeasurably improving water values."

The septic bill is to be formally presented on Monday. The governor described it as a way to accomplish three goals: Preserve agricultural land, protect the bay and channel development toward rebuilding older cities and towns where sewer infrastructure already exists.

That last point is particularly intriguing, and potentially politically explosive. Basically, O'Malley wants to slow development in rural areas in favor of adding density in existing urban and suburban areas.

That strikes me as good smart-growth policy, but the farmers aren't necessarily the only ones who'll squawk about it. Pipkin pointed out that residents in built-up areas often resist packing in more population because of concerns about congestion and other quality-of-life issues.

"The challenge is, we don't have the buy-in from citizens to increase the density in the growth areas that the state already has," Pipkin said.

O'Malley's wind energy bill is likely to have a better chance winning legislative approval. Even there, opposition is expected because citizens would be asked to pay more. O'Malley estimates that the extra cost will be about $1.45 a month on utility bills, but some skeptics think the price will be considerably higher.

As the governor starts his second term, which the state constitution says must be his last, O'Malley would like major environmental achievements to be one of his principal legacies. That in turn could be a building block for national aspirations, such as a run for the White House.

The question will be whether O'Malley can successfully manage the tough economic trade-offs needed to have a measurable impact on the environment. Sen. Jamie Raskin (D-Montgomery), a strong pollution opponent, said that dilemma is a constant frustration.

"The heartbreaking thing is that people's minds are so open to environmental initiatives, but it's nearly impossible finding the money to pay for them," Raskin said.

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