ANNAPOLIS -- When his special panel on growth control bogged down in its debate, Gov. William Donald Schaefer made a personal appeal: Set differences aside and push ahead.
"Any change in the status quo causes controversy," Schaefer told the Governor's Commission on Growth in the Chesapeake Bay Region earlier this month. "If it's right, do it."
But faced with a brewing feud over the commission's ideas, Schaefer has opted not to take his own advice. Instead he is going slowly, transforming the panel's months of work into legislation that leaves major disputes unresolved and postpones implementation for a year or more.
Members of the commission said Schaefer had little choice. The panel initially had recommended tight numerical restrictions on development, including a statewide density limit on housing that local governments would have to follow. But the outcry from local officials and landowners made compromise almost inevitable.
The commission ultimately offered Schaefer the option of stripping the plan of more controversial parts such as the numerical limits, seeking approval of the basic concepts and worrying about the details later.
That is the course he chose in legislation sent to the General Assembly last week. But the real fight over land use is just beginning, according to environmentalists, civic activists, commission members and lawmakers.
"The legislative proposal that went in is a very definitive first step," said Ann P. Swanson, a member of the growth panel and executive director of the tri-state Chesapeake Bay Commission. "It is not as stringent as the commission originally intended. . . but then, based on the overwhelming outcry of the individual jurisdictions and landowner . . . it was not going to fly."
Although public meetings were held across the state, Swanson said it is clear in retrospect that the panel, headed by former U.S. representative Michael Barnes, did not do enough to build consensus.
"The challenge was so enormous and the task so all-consuming and the ideas were flowing at such a rapid rate, I don't think members focused on the public relations that were needed," Swanson said.
Opponents are not enthusiastic about the attempt to compromise now.
"The only way to defeat this thing is to take the whole thing down," said Margaret Ann Reigle, chairwoman of the Fairness to Landowners Committee, an Eastern Shore-based group that formed in opposition to non-tidal wetlands regulations proposed two years ago. "What right does a bachelor governor have to decide how our children and our children's children are going to live" by restricting where houses can be built?
Maryland's population is expected to grow by 1 million during the next 30 years. The strain on the state's resources, from roads and schools to the Chesapeake Bay, will be enormous. Current development patterns -- larger lots, more widely dispersed from existing roads, sewers and schools -- only make the situation worse. More "sprawl" means fewer trees and higher demand for expensive new infrastructure.
To ease growth's impact on the environment and the budgets of local governments, the panel proposed funneling development into urban areas and placing tight restrictions on building elsewhere.
The plan required counties to divide all of their land into one of four categories, ranging from ground that was already developed to "sensitive areas" that would be protected from almost all construction. More controversial, it applied statewide density limits to every jurisdiction. Under the initial recommendations, for example, two-thirds of all new housing would have to be in designated growth areas, while countywide density for new development would have to average no more than 3.5 units per acre, about the average for Columbia.
As an incentive, the state would help underwrite the costs of new roads, schools and sewers needed to support the growth areas.
Called visionary by its supporters, the plan was seen by many landowners as a fundamental violation of their property rights. Local officials questioned how deeply the state should get involved in the traditionally local issue of land use.
Both landowners and local officials were skeptical that specific restrictions such as density limits made sense statewide. What good was it to talk of restricting growth in a place such as Dorchester County, they asked, which has been losing population?
"Forget the legislation. The whole concept they are claiming this is going to achieve doesn't make any sense," said Thomas E. Dernoga, president of the West Laurel Civic Association and one of more than 30 Washington area civic activists who signed a letter to Schaefer opposing the idea.
"People in developed areas are looking at this and saying we are already developed, we have overcrowded schools and the roads are congested, and you are saying we are going to save the bay by putting more people here. It does not add up," he said.
It was in hopes of smoothing over such concerns that Schaefer chose to remove what many saw as the core of the growth plan -- the density restrictions. The bill submitted last week still requires counties to designate land as developed, available for development, a "rural-resource" area with tight zoning restrictions or an environmentally sensitive area that is to be preserved.
Counties also would be required to develop their own growth-management plans, subject to state approval. While those plans are being written, interim restrictions would limit growth to areas already zoned for it and served by sewers.
Left unspecified are the actual standards counties would have to meet in developing their growth plans: how much development can go where, for example, and under what conditions. Those would be contained in regulations still to be drafted by the growth panel, the Office of State Planning and the governor's office.
Administration officials say such an approach is not new -- a similar method was used in developing the state's critical areas program several years ago -- and allows more time to sort through complicated issues.
Enactment of Schaefer's plan would "change the way Maryland looks," said Schaefer's chief legislative aide, David S. Iannucci.
But both supporters and opponents of growth management see a risk: If the final regulations again impose uniform statewide restrictions, Dernoga said, then the current legislation and talk of compromise is a "shell game."
If the result is a set of rules that varies widely for each county, then the effect on growth patterns and the environment may be limited.
"The governor did a very good job in coming up with a bill that provides a good framework," said Stephen Bunker, a staff scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. But "you run a risk when you put the bulk of the specifics of a program to regulation rather than legislation . . . . I hope all we are talking about is fine-tuning."