ANNAPOLIS – Gov. Parris N. Glendening took the next step last week toward bridling suburban sprawl with a legislative package that makes it easier to build in older communities and cleans up a mixed bag of building regulations.
A tangle of overlapping and conflicting local building codes make it “easier to build on a green field” than in older communities, said Sen. Brian E. Frosh, D-Montgomery, a package sponsor.
But these bills, a segment of Glendening’s 1997 Smart Growth campaign to manage growth and sprawl, would “jumpstart” rehabilitation in deteriorating communities, Frosh said.
Land-use codes for rehabilitating vacant or underused buildings in older communities would be designed by the Office of Planning under one bill. The agency would also devise zoning laws that foster “smart neighborhood development,” or growth that blends residential, commercial and open space.
The second bill requires the Department of Housing and Community Development to draft by December a new set of regulations, the Maryland Building Rehabilitation Code. That code would maintain current safety standards and apply to the repair, renovation and reconstruction of existing buildings.
“The hodgepodge of building codes, zoning laws and other kinds of local regulatory requirements make (redevelopment) so time consuming and expensive that the work isn’t done at all,” said John Frece, the governor’s Smart Growth assistant.
Several building codes are so rigid that a builder who wants to renovate a bathroom in an older home might also have to redo a functioning stairwell that is an inch too narrow, said Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of 1000 Friends of Maryland, a grassroots anti-sprawl organization.
But under the Rehabilitation Code, rules will be looser, and smaller redevelopment projects will not have to comply with as many codes as projects that renovate an entire home, Frece said. That should cut the cost of rehabilitating buildings by 20 percent, he said.
Fire and safety standards would not be compromised, but only altered to fit older structures, Frece said.
“The code is a commonsense approach and an important (step) in unraveling the policies that have encouraged sprawl,” said Schmidt-Perkins.
Other states have had success with the rehabilitation code, a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and National Association of Home Builders Research Center model. Maryland will frame its regulations on the federal archetype.
Since New Jersey adopted a uniform rehabilitation code in 1998 the state has seen a 44 percent increase in the level of redevelopment activity in 15 targeted centers.
Under the proposals, jurisdictions will not be forced to comply with the new codes, but encouraged with incentives. Communities that adopt the Rehabilitation Code will be eligible for part of the $100 million Glendening has added to Neighborhood Conservation Program and the $10 million he attached to the Rural Legacy Program in this year’s budget proposal.
Amending the code could disqualify jurisdictions for the incentive money.
That troubles some legislators.
While General Assembly Democratic leadership endorses both bills, minority leaders promise a fight.
Senate Minority Leader Martin G. Madden, R-Howard, worries future state leaders will wield the Rehabilitation Code as a political stick.
“I just want to be sure that this statewide code is objectively applied (to local jurisdictions) and is not left open to interpretation,” he said. “My biggest fear is that the code will be used for political retribution.”
“The state is trying to emasculate local government,” said Delegate Robert C. Baldwin, R-Anne Arundel. “The best government is at the lowest possible place.”
State officials will work with local representatives to tailor the code to include area needs. For instance, Garrett County might have strict roof requirements because of heavy snow, while Ocean City might have rigid foundation requirements because of floods.
Builders across the state applaud the legislation for bringing consistency and predictability to building regulations.
“The code will be more prescriptive, like a cookbook,” said Miles Haber, president of the Chevy Chase-based Monument Construction Inc.
The Maryland-National Capital Building Association Industry Association, which represents 700 companies in the state’s building industry, endorses the Rehabilitation Code bill, said Hamer Campbell, spokesman.
And legislators, builders and environmentalists, eager to see the legislation pass, promise to bolster the bills as they churn through the assembly this session.
“Growth has gotten out of control and we want to reverse that,” said Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, D-Prince George’s, a sponsor to both bills. “I will be surprised if local government will try to put up obstacles, but if they do, I think they can be worked out.”