Foes, supporters clash over Plan Maryland

To its supporters, Gov. Martin O'Malley's Plan Maryland is a long-overdue effort to bring Maryland's disparate programs to promote Smart Growth under one consolidated plan with an agreed-upon set of rules. To its detractors, the plan is a naked power grab aimed at concentrating power in Annapolis at the expense of local governments.

Those two views clashed Monday in a Senate committee room, where state Planning Secretary Richard Hall defended the administration's effort to draft an executive order implementing those rules against Senate Minority Leader E. J. Pipkin's demand that any such plan be submitted to the General Assembly for approval.

"The plan does not create new law," Hall told the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee.

"It should be a bill," countered Pipkin, an Upper Shore Republican who was joined by four commissioners from rural counties.

The plan, undergoing revisions after two drafts, was the subject of a briefing held at the direction of Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, who asked the governor to hold off on issuing a final plan until senators could learn more about it.

The plan seeks to bring together in one document the rules governing several different programs associated with the concept of Smart Growth, which was adopted as state policy in 1997 through a landmark bill pushed through the legislature by Gov. Parris N. Glendening.

The basic principle of the Smart Growth law is to use state spending to encourage development in county-designated growth areas and to discourage it outside those zones. Supporters contend that Smart Growth not only reduces sprawl development and protects the environment but saves taxpayers money by reducing the need to build infrastructure in rural areas.

The administration says Plan Maryland would simply make clear that state agencies will target state resources — for roads, schools and other public works projects — to support development within the counties' designated growth zones. Development outside those zones could still go forward, but might not get state funds.

But that has raised hackles in some of the state's rural counties, where some local leaders see the plan as a mechanism to siphon their tax dollars into urban areas.

The plan has aroused strong enough passions that 100 people gathered in Annapolis for a rally on Lawyers Mall before the briefing.

"The war on rural Maryland is in progress," Pipkin told the crowd. "It takes away jobs in the rural areas, and it leads to high tolls, taxes and fees."

Carroll County Commissioner Richard Rothschild, a Republican, portrayed the plan in apocalyptic terms, denouncing it as an unconstitutional, socialist-inspired product of the Buddhist government of the Himalayan nation of Bhutan.

"Annapolis wants you to believe your only choice is between sprawl and helping urban commuters," he said, adding that if necessary, plan opponents would "exercise our constitutional right to throw off such government."

Pipkin said he plans to introduce a bill in the legislative session that begins next month that would require any comprehensive state land-use plan to be submitted to the legislature. The administration contends it has received two opinions from the state attorney general's office saying that it is acting within its powers in drafting the plan.

Hall told the committee Maryland needs a "game plan" to see that the various departments of state government are working together to implement Smart Growth policies. "We've been on the ball field for decades without a game plan," he said.

The administration's efforts received the backing of a coalition of environmental groups, including 1000 Friends of Maryland.

Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of the group, told senators the plan will fill a gap in the state's strategy for managing growth. "It gives us the information we need so we can move forward in a clear, efficient way," she said.

Hall told the committee that the administration has sought the views of residents and officials in all parts of the state, holding three rounds of meetings over the past 21/2 years it has spent drafting the plan.

But Sen. Ronald Young, a Frederick County Democrat, compared the state's outreach efforts unfavorably with the Glendening administration's campaign to win support for the law — an effort in which Young played a major role.

"I think this has been a PR debacle," he told Hall. "I think this thing has been bungled so badly it's created a horrendous situation."

It appears unlikely the General Assembly would take action to try to block Plan Maryland. House Speaker Michael E. Busch said last week that he sees no reason to block the plan from going into effect. And Sen. Joan Carter Conway, who chairs the committee briefed Monday, indicated that she agrees.

"Most of what's in this plan is in current law," the Baltimore Democrat said.