ANNAPOLIS – As the General Assembly began debating two of Gov. Parris N. Glendening’s environmental programs last week, lawmakers expressed mixed enthusiasm for the initiative known as Smart Growth.
Almost everyone agrees that Smart Growth — designed to curb suburban sprawl, protect natural areas, and channel growth to urban corridors — has conceptual appeal.
But some legislators are struggling with a one-size-fits-all approach and wonder how a single plan can meet the needs of every part of the state.
“I sense a real spirit to try to get this Smart Growth to work. We just want to make sure that when we sign on, it’s going to fit in our communities,” said Sen. Thomas Middleton, D- Charles.
The Smart Growth plan would direct state money for new construction to cities, industrial parks and residential areas already slated to receive sewer and water services within the next six years. The idea is to support growth already in place or in planning.
A related bill, the Rural Legacy program, would give the state more land preservation money to compete with developers encroaching on farmland and natural areas.
“It’s a great idea, and it does have support,” said Sen. Clarence Blount, D-Baltimore City, chairman of the Senate committee that heard testimony on the Smart Growth bill last week.
“But this isn’t the kind of bill where you’re either here or over here. … There’s a lot of wiggle room and a lot of things you can negotiate.”
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Prince George’s, said there was considerable support for the bills in his chamber and among many Marylanders.
“I think the Senate looks very favorably upon both plans,” Miller said. “The citizens are not complaining at all. Most Marylanders recognize they have a special jewel in the Chesapeake Bay. We need planning and zoning to protect this resource as well as a plan to protect the future.”
But the scenario in the House of Delegates may not be so rosy. Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., D-Allegany, said he had not begun working on the issues and that it was too early to say how the bills might fare.
Del. Ronald Guns, D-Cecil, who presides over the Environmental Matters Committee that will vote on the Smart Growth bill, has expressed concerns about it.
The measure would deny state funds for some housing, road, environmental and economic development projects in areas that do not meet the state’s criteria for growth corridors.
“This is a major shift here,” Guns said. “This is the people at the top making decisions for the people who want to design what their counties will look like in 25 years.”
But administration officials see things differently. Ron Young, the governor’s point person for Smart Growth, said the state should not have to spend its dollars on expensive programs that promote sprawl.
Local government could still approve building projects on undeveloped land, but would have to pay for them on their own.
“There is not one thing in here that makes anyone do anything,” Young said. “It’s the state’s money. And those guys should be able to spend it wisely.”
Some legislators have suggested it may take more than one General Assembly session to iron out these philosophical differences, as well as the small details. “It’s asking for a lot with very little time,” Guns said.
Rural lawmakers worry that much of their land would not qualify as Smart Growth areas. As a result, they say, their jurisdictions could lose millions of state dollars for services. Some farmers fear they may lose the option of selling their highly valued land to developers.
But members of rural delegations have been meeting with administration officials to see if they can craft a winning bill. Both sides report progress.
“I would say we’re a lot closer than when we started,” said Del. Norman Conway, D-Wicomico, chairman of the Eastern Shore delegation.
The administration has made several concessions. It has designated as Smart Growth areas those “rural villages” that may not have water or sewer systems. And it has put some state-funded programs out of the bill’s reach. For instance, communities that don’t qualify as Smart Growth areas can still get assistance for stream restoration projects and other anti-pollution measures.
Several rural lawmakers said the desire to make the bill work was still kicking.
“If we were going to be adamant about this, we would have said we weren’t going to fool with it and sent it to summer study. But we haven’t done that yet,” Conway said. -30-