ANNAPOLIS, DEC. 15 -- A plan to control growth in Maryland drew fire today from county officials who see it as an attempt to take over their zoning authority and from some environmentalists who see it as not going far enough to protect the state's natural resources.
However, most of the approximately 250 people at a public hearing today said they support the plan's overall goal of protecting the Chesapeake Bay from problems generated by uncontrolled sprawl. With 1 million new residents expected in Maryland by 2020, the speakers agreed that a statewide growth-management program is needed.
But beyond that, there was little consensus as local elected officials, builders, farmers and environmentalists took issue with specific recommendations in a draft report by the Governor's Commission on Growth in the Chesapeake Bay Region. Those recommendations include statewide limits on building in undeveloped areas and a call for higher-density housing around existing population centers.
Although specific zoning decisions would still be left to the counties, the prospect of statewide standards and scrutiny does not sit well with local officials.
"We go along with the spirit, but other than that, we want to rest land-use decisions with the subdivisions and municipalities of the state," said Prince George's County Council member Frank P. Casula, incoming president of the Maryland Association of Counties. "The way it appears now, it is just a state takeover."
County opposition -- ranging from Western Maryland to the Washington suburbs and the Eastern Shore -- could prove a tough barrier for the commission as it seeks to channel growth into already developed areas, preserve open space and curb the need for new roads, sewers and other infrastructure.
Under the panel's draft recommendations, Maryland's 23 counties would have to designate all of their land as either developed, available for growth, farms or forests, or environmentally sensitive. The size of each county's growth zone would be limited by local population projections, with construction subject to a minimum statewide density of 2.8 housing units per acre. Most construction would be banned on sensitive land, while building on farmland would be limited to one house per 20 acres.
Farmers protested today that such restrictions would rob them of their equity.
The state would have to approve each county plan, but in return would pick up more of the cost of new roads, sewers, schools or other improvements developed in compliance with the growth controls.
After today's hearing, the commission is supposed to develop final recommendations for submission to Gov. William Donald Schaefer by the end of the year.
If adopted by Schaefer and the legislature, the plan would preserve an estimated 400,000 acres from development and would save state and local governments millions of dollars in road and sewer construction costs, according to Michael D. Barnes, commission chairman and a former U.S. representative.
The commission, which includes environmentalists, business and development representatives as well as state officials, was formed by Schaefer out of concern that the Chesapeake Bay area's environment will have difficulty sustaining an expected 20 percent population boom in the coming decades.
However, environmental groups and some municipal officials said today they think the commission's report is tilted in favor of developers and ignores the need for strict protection of forests and of the habitats of endangered species.
The draft recommendations, for example, don't allow counties to adopt environmental standards stricter than those set by the state and don't guard the environmentally important features within growth zones, Annapolis Alderman Ellen Moyer said. As a result, she said, urban areas might find it harder to protect the environment. "You have drafted legislation that is developer-criteria driven," she said.
Ajax Eastman, of the Maryland Conservation Council, argued that the commission's report was designed to accommodate growth rather than control it.
Builders and developers also questioned parts of the report. Kay Bienen, a Maryland Builders Association lobbyist, said that more existing projects should be exempted by any legislation and that the state should account more for differences between rural and urban areas.