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Md. Looks to Regulate the Promised Land

By Terry M. Neal and Todd Shields
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, February 23, 1997; Page A01

In Charles County, on the frontier of Maryland suburbia, are two popular examples of neighborhood development. Maryland's governor, pushing his most ambitious growth-related initiative, wants to promote one and discourage the other.

The outcome of his effort to curb suburban sprawl will help shape Maryland's future face, from the mountainous west to the sandy Eastern Shore. It also will help determine how easily a Marylander can pursue the dream of finding elbow room on a spacious plot, far from urban crowds.

On one hand is St. Charles, a master-planned community of clustered houses, apartments, town houses and commercial buildings along U.S. 301. The density ranges from about three homes per acre to many times that number in the town house and apartment areas. It's the type of development Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) hopes to encourage through his Smart Growth proposal.

On the other hand is Ashford Oaks, a spacious, minimally planned development in Waldorf. It's typical of large-lot communities that are replacing forests, farmland and open space in many sections of the county. It advertises "luxury single-family homes from the 170s" to buyers, who are snapping them up as fast as builders can build them.

And therein lies Glendening's challenge. Sprawling neighborhoods may make inefficient use of land, roads and water lines. But they appeal to the deep-seated desire of many people to own a roomy lot and to escape the increasingly congested and expensive inner suburbs of cities such as Washington.

"We build where people want to live," said Thomas S. Bozzuto, whose company, the Bozzuto Group, developed much of Ashford Oaks. "We are not leaders; we are followers."

Glendening, however, wants to lead Marylanders away from such neighborhoods. In a far-reaching legislative package, he is recommending financial incentives to revitalize established communities and to restrict growth in rural areas to compact, well-planned neighborhoods such as those in St. Charles and the better-known Columbia, in Howard County.

Except for education, Glendening said in an interview, controlling sprawl "is the most important issue facing us in terms of what our quality of life is going to be."

In recent weeks, however, details of his proposal have ignited fears as well as cheers, virtually assuring a tough battle in the General Assembly.

The plan would withhold or limit millions of state tax dollars to counties for schools, roads, sewers and other projects that would lie outside targeted "smart growth" areas. The same would be true for state assistance for business loans and housing construction.

Glendening originally had planned to allow state-paid school construction to occur outside designated smart growth areas. Now he says he will change the bill to restrict such use of funds sharply. The state shares school construction costs with local governments.

Local governments could insist on building projects outside those areas, but they would have to pay for them. That would prove difficult, if not impossible, for many counties and towns.

All municipalities, all areas inside the Baltimore and Washington beltways and all areas identified as business enterprise zones automatically would qualify as smart growth zones and would be eligible for state dollars. New developments within such areas need not reach any particular density level.

Also qualifying would be rural areas scheduled to receive water and sewer service within six years. However, new housing developments in such locations would have to average at least 3.5 units per acre.

Currently, only a few Maryland communities meet such a level. St. Charles and Columbia are among them, said Ronald Kreitner, director of the state's Office of Planning.

Hundreds of millions of dollars are at stake. The state plans to spend $821 million for roads and highway construction and $652 million for mass transit projects in the next five years.

In Charles County, the plan would discourage large-lot neighborhoods like Ashford Oaks, which averages 2.4 homes per acre, and Constitution Hills, which averages 1.6 homes per acre. They are among the subdivisions that have sprouted in recent years along Route 228.

State tax money helped make those and nearby similar developments possible by widening the highway and building schools for new families. If Glendening's package is enacted, Charles County planners say, state funds for such projects would disappear.

Curiously, much of the support for Glendening's plan comes from people who live in the very types of neighborhoods it would discourage. Homeowners such as Clark and Amy Freise, of Ashford Oaks, a community of 289 single-family houses, say local government has allowed growth to explode with little regard to the effect on services, particularly schools and roads.

"I think that there's really a strong sentiment that the county commissioners are either not willing or able to control the developers," said Amy Freise, who has lived in Charles County for six years. "We just have a lot of developers running amok out here. And when [local government] is supposed to do something and does not, people look to the next level up and say, 'Maybe you can help us.' "

Critics say the plan has pitfalls that could undermine its good intentions. "This is a massive issue," said Murray Levy (D), president of the Charles County Commission, who worries that growing counties, including his, would lose funding for roads, schools and other projects. "It has major impacts on people's lifestyles and financing of county governments. And it just can't be rushed. We want to support [Glendening]. . . . I'd say we're about halfway there."

House of Delegates Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. (D-Allegany) said: "Philosophically, who is opposed to it? Nobody. It's like apple pie and motherhood. It's a very popular concept that is very easy to be supportive of. But, as they say, the devil is in the details."

Environmentalists say more than a half-million acres of open space and farmland in Maryland will disappear in the next two decades if development continues at its current pace. The result would be more traffic, congestion and air pollution. That would hurt efforts to clean up the Chesapeake Bay and other waterways as forests and wetlands are replaced by roads and other impervious surfaces that direct tainted water into the bay's tributaries.

Continued sprawl also would mean greater expense to taxpayers who foot the bill for the growing network of roads, sewers and water lines, Glendening argues.

Glendening's proposal is less Draconian than sprawl-control plans in Oregon, Florida and some California cities, which have achieved mixed results. Oregon has led the way, adopting measures to concentrate development in cities and preserve open space. Local governments that don't comply are subject to state sanctions.

In Maryland, where land-control matters traditionally have been left to local governments, many environmentalists say they generally like Glendening's plan.

"Can we reverse [sprawl]? I don't know," said Dru Schmidt-Perkins, Maryland director of Clean Water Action. "Can we slow it? Yeah, we can. And that's real important."

But some environmentalists have complained that the governor's plan would allow funding for roads that are not in smart growth areas but that connect smart growth areas. That would allow funding for projects such as the controversial Inter-County Connector in Montgomery and Prince George's counties. Environmentalists fear communities would spring up along the connectors, creating sprawl.

Steve Larsen, Glendening's chief lobbyist, said the state would avoid such problems by limiting exits on the connecting roads.

Some local officials say the plan goes too far. In Southern Maryland, they are especially wary.

"The big problem that we have in Calvert County is we build most of our schools outside of town centers," said Hagner R. Mister (D), president of the Calvert County Commissioners. "If the governor's not going to fund schools outside of town centers, then we're in a world of trouble."

Charles County officials said the plan could have arbitrary and contradictory results. Municipalities such as La Plata, a town of fewer than 7,000 people about 25 miles south of Washington, automatically would be designated smart growth areas. But developments in places such as Waldorf, an unincorporated area with more than 50,000 people that is 10 miles closer to Washington, might not qualify.

"This can cause major problems for Charles County," Levy said.

Schmidt-Perkins defends the plan.

"The county commissioners in Southern Maryland are not pleased about it because it does not fund their vision of growth," she said. "And that's exactly what this bill is supposed to change. The state is not going to fund ridiculous growth patterns."

Speaker Taylor said that many lawmakers believe the initiative favors the key population centers of Prince George's County, Montgomery County and Baltimore. Those are the only jurisdictions Glendening carried in the 1994 election.

"It's very popular with the big suburban counties," Taylor said. "And that is fundamentally why it's in front of us."

Taylor said he wants assurances that poor rural counties such as his, Allegany, that are badly in need of jobs won't lose out on commercial development of unproductive or vacant farms that aren't in smart growth areas.

Glendening insists that his plan does not favor any jurisdiction. He noted that dozens of mayors and other municipal officials from small and rural counties all over the state have endorsed it.

"This is not no-growth, not slow-growth," Glendening said. "This is smart growth."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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