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Sprawl or growth? Plans for wider Route 32 revives an old debate

Sprawl or growth? Plans for wider Route 32 revives an old debate
Traffic on Route 32 just west of Route 108. (Kim Hairston / Baltimore Sun)

The sign on Route 32, as drivers head north toward Clarksville Pike, is foreboding: "Prepare!!" it says. "Freeway Ends 1 mile."

Almost immediately, the backup begins, as the road narrow from two lanes to one, and cars and trucks start a steep uphill slog toward Dayton, Glenelg and Sykesville.

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After years of delays, a long-anticipated plan to widen Route 32 to four lanes through western Howard County has been funded by Gov. Larry Hogan. Nearly everyone expects the project, which would add a median and one lane in either direction to a nine-mile stretch of road between Route 108 and Interstate 70, to spur development in the area.

Supporters say the $152 million project is long overdue and will improve safety, alleviate the frustrations of thousands of commuters, and help bring jobs and opportunity to Carroll County to the north. But others contend that opening the road will yield more traffic and homebuilding, accelerating changes in a part of the state where farmland and open space face encroaching residential development.

"The governor is putting more of an emphasis on roads and bridges and infrastructure that Marylanders actually use, as opposed to mass transit," said Del. Haven Shoemaker of Carroll County, which has long pushed for the Route 32 project, expecting it to eventually lead to a bigger road farther north. "I think that's a refreshing change for all of us."

The road widening is one of a number of actions by new state and county leaders that some say are rolling back measures designed to protect the environment and guard against sprawl.

"It's myopic planning," said Paul Bylis, 56, of Ellicott City, who said the state is on its way to becoming a sea of subdivisions. "Where does it end? How do you take this gorgeous state and protect it?"

Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman, a Republican, has proposed a zoning map amendment that would open thousands of acres around Route 32 to more intense development. It resurrects a plan approved by the County Council but vetoed by the previous county executive, Democrat Kenneth Ulman.

The proposed change would have limited effect on the county, Kittleman said, but make a big difference to property owners, whose land is worth far more if it has development potential.

Much of the acreage — planning officials said they weren't sure how much it was — already has limited development rights. Under local zoning, officials estimate the changes would only allow about 300 additional units.

"It's dramatic for families. It's not very dramatic for the county," Kittleman said.

Kittleman also proposed phasing out a stormwater fee and asked a task force to re-evaluate a local regulation that seeks to ensure that roads and schools can handle the population growth that comes with new developments. Kittleman said those initiatives are independent of the expansion of Route 32.

"I think we're seeing a reversal in a lot of environmental progress, in particular that was made in Howard County," said Courtney Watson, a former county councilwoman and Democrat who lost the election for county executive to Kittleman in 2014. "We're seeing a change in ideology."

The widening of Route 32 has been something of a political football in the debate between growth and preservation. Discussions to widen the road started in at least 1989, and it moved through planning phases in the 1990s.

Approved in 2004 during the administration of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., the project triggered a lawsuit from the conservation group 1000 Friends of Maryland, which said the plan violated smart-growth provisions that focused state money on densely populated areas.

The group lost the case, appealed, and lost again.

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Dru Schmidt-Perkins, the leader of 1000 Friends of Maryland, said studies show widening the road will encourage more car travel — and more traffic — while allowing for people to move at higher, more dangerous speeds when the road is clear.

The Hogan administration is "showing, definitely in transportation funding, a real change in where money is going and in fairly clear violation of the priority-area funding laws," said Schmidt-Perkins, referring to the state's smart-growth laws. "We are all trying to figure out what to do about it."

Under Gov. Martin O'Malley, the Route 32 project moved forward in fits, with the State Highway Administration acquiring rights of way and working on rumble strips and new interchanges. Many felt the plans had been put on the back burner, even as the area's population swelled.

At a news conference in January to announce $152 million in funding for the project, Hogan — who led a real estate firm before becoming governor — told local officials, "Your appeals were ignored. Today we are answering the call."

Construction of the first $33 million phase between Clarksville Pike and Linden Church Road is expected to start in 2017, with Howard County contributing about half the cost. A second, $107 million phase, from Linden Church Road to I-70, would start in 2019.

James T. Smith Jr., transportation secretary under O'Malley, said he believes widening the road is "a necessary and needed" project.

Since the Route 32 project was approved in 2004, population growth in Howard County has slowed, while average traffic on the road has held steady at about 30,000 cars daily, according to SHA measurements. But the SHA projects the road will handle as many as 58,000 vehicles daily by 2035, said Gregory Slater, the agency's director for planning.

John Tegeris, 52, who travels Route 32 regularly on his commute from Dayton to his public health job in Washington, said the improvements are badly needed to improve the road's safety. Headlight use is already mandatory in the area.

"It's clearly a balance issue," said Tegeris, who moved to Dayton around 2009 and is president of the Dayton Rural Preservation Society. "This is impacting so many people from a safety standpoint that any negative impact on creep into the rural communities is minimal compared to the benefit for the county."

Kittleman's amendment to the Howard County zoning tier map, if approved, likely will lead to more growth, said Stephen J. Ferrandi, president of Maryland Land Advisors, which works with farmers on land sales. But a lot of it has already happened, he said.

"It's not like you're building a road and people are going to come. They're already using the road," Ferrandi said. "All you're doing is alleviating the problem."

Several people said they expect the major beneficiary of a wider, faster road to be Carroll County, which is home to many of the commuters using the road to head south to work each morning.

As part of the plans announced by Hogan, the state is spending $1 million to study how to extend a wider Route 32 north from I-70 to Route 26 in Eldersburg. The state also identified $5 million for improvements near the new Sykesville armory.

"Transportation is huge for economic development," said Sykesville Mayor Ian Shaw, a Democrat and a real estate agent at Long & Foster's Columbia office. "If there's only one lane in and one lane out, it's not very user-friendly."

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Projects that support redevelopment of places like the Warfield Complex are a form of smart growth, Shaw added, allowing Carroll County residents to work locally, instead of commuting to other jurisdictions.

"The whole point for communities is to be able to live, work and play in the same place," he said. "If we can bring some economic development, some business to Warfield, where people can live in Sykesville, work at Warfield, and then dine, play in the parks, shop there, isn't that smart growth?"

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