ANNAPOLIS – Wary of giving the administration unlimited power to purchase land across the state, the House of Delegates passed a bill Monday placing limits on the governor’s new anti-sprawl, land preservation program.
If the bill passes the Senate, the General Assembly would gain some control over what properties are purchased under GreenPrint, Gov. Parris N. Glendening’s $145 million new program aimed at preserving a network of environmentally sensitive areas. Any large acquisitions will have to come under its review.
Western Maryland delegates won a requirement that the Department of Natural Resources give priority to purchasing land in metropolitan areas instead of rural counties.
The delegates were worried the program could disproportionately restrict their counties from developing.
“They buy out land in the rural areas because it is cheap and they can say we preserved 10 percent of the land,” said Delegate George C. Edwards, R- Garrett. “Some of the land they preserved in Allegany and Garrett is the best land for development purposes.”
Edwards pushed hard for the stipulation in the bill requiring the Department of Natural Resources to give priority to preserving land in counties where it owns less than 9 percent of the area.
Most of the land proposed for preservation under GreenPrint would be in Garrett, Allegany and other rural counties, where the department already owns a large amount of land.
“If you have all those people in the metropolitan areas concerned with open area, let’s create some open space in those areas,” Edwards said. “Let’s buy some of this land so they don’t have to drive three hours to get out in the woods.”
The bill will probably clear the Senate because the House, earlier in the session, required that funding for the program be contingent on its passage, said Sen. Thomas McLain Middleton, D-Charles.
The House and the Senate still have to iron out differences on how much to cut from the $40 million the governor proposed for the program next year. The Senate cut half out of concern the department would not be able to spend all the money in one year. The House only cut $5 million.
The bill has the support of the key state environmental agency, the Chesapeake Bay Commission.
Creating more green space in suburban areas could encourage people to live in more densely populated areas, said Ann Swanson, the commission’s executive director.
“People would be willing to live in a more clustered condition if there was a guarantee that there was open space near by,” Swanson said.
The drawback is that land is more expensive in suburban areas, and encouraging the state to purchase land there could make it harder for it to meet its pledge in the Chesapeake 2000 agreement to protect 20 percent of its land from development by 2010.
So far, the state has only protected 14.7 percent of its land.
“It just means that the price tag of achieving the 20 percent might go up,” she said. “We’ll have to do more with more, rather than more with less.”
Environmental groups support targeting suburban areas because it could actually help slow sprawl, instead of simply setting aside land that would likely go undeveloped anyway.
Maryland is developing at a rate of 35,560 acres a year, which would make the state over 20 percent developed by 2010.
“I think there are two ways of looking at it,” said Theresa Pierno, Chesapeake Bay Foundation director. “Clearly we support protecting land most threatened by development.”
The Chesapeake 2000 agreement was an accord between Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C., to decrease pollution flow into the Chesapeake Bay and prevent another environmental crisis such as the pfiesteria outbreak in 1997.
Environmental groups say curbing sprawl and preserving green space is important in protecting the bay from excess nutrients and sediment, which can cloud the water and kill the underwater wildlife.