O'Malley faces tough sell to locals on land development

OCEAN CITY — — Gov. Martin O'Malley's broad strategy to revamp land development rules across Maryland met harsh criticism Friday, as local officials worried that the governor's proposal would interfere with their ability to plan and pay for schools, roads and housing.

In a discussion with local leaders at a Maryland Association of Counties conference, the Democratic governor sought to sell his new program, which has been in the works for three years. He said it would protect farms and woodlands, and would designate targeted growth areas — saving the state billions by concentrating development in areas already served by roads, sewers and other infrastructure. Localities that don't comply could lose crucial school construction, road and wastewater funding.

"This is not a straitjacket," O'Malley told reporters. "This is not a law that prohibits counties from making stupid decisions. But we're not going to subsidize it anymore."

But some local officials criticized the proposal in what was at times a testy exchange with the governor. They complained that the plan to link local aid to compliance with statewide goals would take authority away from localities, which typically control what can be built and what should be protected within their bounds.

Frederick County Commissioner Billy Shreve, a Republican, said in an interview that he could foresee an "uprising" of rural communities to fight against it.

"He's basically saying, 'The county doesn't know how to run their business, and the state's going to show you how to do it,'" Shreve said.

Resistance to the proposal, which does not require state legislative approval, comes after a tough legislative session for the governor. O'Malley's key environmental initiatives — including legislation to limit septic systems and build an offshore wind farm — failed to win approval in the General Assembly.

J. Douglas Howard, a Republican and president of the Carroll County Board of Commissioners, raised a concern aired by many at the event. He told the governor that counties have not had enough time to analyze the plan; state planners are to present a final draft to O'Malley in October.

"Why the rush?" he asked O'Malley. "We'd really like to have six months to digest this. … This is a fundamental issue of property rights."

O'Malley stressed that the plan is not a substitute for local zoning plans and will not restrict local planning and zoning authority. But the governor was adamant that the state's current rate of growth isn't sustainable, saying the rate of land consumption in the past 30 years was higher than in the previous 350 years.

The administration sees the plan as a strategy to more effectively implement "smart growth" and prevent sprawl, much as Gov. Parris N. Glendening attempted in the late 1990s with his "priority funding areas." State officials say O'Malley's plan seeks to take a comprehensive look at development and preservation with an eye toward how the state will use its assets to best manage growth.

The master plan, which officials say would reduce pollution in the Chesapeake Bay and save about $29 billion in new road construction costs, will offer incentives for localities to follow the plan and help "fast-track" growth where dense development already exists.

Even some O'Malley allies say they're uncomfortable with the state forcing oversight on local decisions. Howard County Executive Ken Ulman said he was taken aback when he saw a draft of the plan that didn't include a redevelopment project in downtown Columbia — something he said state officials described as an oversight.

"To force us to talk to each other, to compare notes, is a vehicle that is very helpful," said Ulman, a Democrat and potential candidate for governor in 2014. "But it's that fear of the state bureaucracy saying, 'That doesn't fit,' about a project that works in our communities."

A draft of the "PlanMaryland" proposal, which included the input of more than 3,000 people and was discussed at more than 100 meetings, has circulated among government officials since April. Still, many expressed an eagerness to have more time to mull the document and its implications in order to offer their perspectives and provide input before the governor makes it official.

"You can't even get on our county agenda in a month's time," said Bob Simmons, a Republican Queen Anne's County commissioner. "This is ridiculous."

Speaking to reporters after his remarks, O'Malley appeared amenable to a longer timeline for implementation, saying, "We'll be as flexible as we can be."

But he also expressed an urgency, pointing out that a state mandate for such a plan has existed since 1973, but hasn't been used. State officials at the Department of Planning have presented the proposal in a series of maps detailing areas for growth, such as already designated business-oriented "enterprise zones" and development as a result of the military's base realignment and closure plan. The maps also target areas for preservation.

"All of this requires a degree of coordination and alignment that we're never ever been able to achieve before as a people," O'Malley said. "I don't think it's a matter of fencing us up off from one another. … I think it's acknowledging where the consensus exists, and using your own land-use policies and procedures and make sure you deliver for your people."

In Anne Arundel, County Executive John R. Leopold is considering whether to invoke his rarely used veto power to kill parts of a controversial rezoning bill that recently passed the County Council. Earlier this year, Leopold vetoed rezoning amendments in another bill, though some of his actions were overridden by the County Council. Leopold said Thursday that it's all part of the necessary local land-use debate.

"I think the existing state law makes it very clear that zoning changes should conform to a zoning development plan," said Leopold, a Republican. "I would not encourage further intrusion into our local zoning prerogative, other than to adhere to our general development plan."

In Baltimore County, planners believe they already have a system in place that will work with the state's goals.

Andrea Van Arsdale, director of the county Department of Planning, said the initiative would likely have little effect on the county, a local government the governor praised in his remarks.

"Baltimore County and PlanMaryland [have] similar perspectives on how to do this," Van Arsdale said. "Their growth plan and our growth areas are conceptually very similar."

Since the late 1960s Baltimore County has been using land-use management practices usually considered "smart growth." In 1967, the county created the Urban Rural Demarcation Line as a boundary between sections that are served by public water and sewer, and those that are not. In 1979 the county designated Owings Mills in the northwest and the Perry Hall-White Marsh area in the northeast of the county as growth areas.

Van Arsdale said that while "we have quibbles around the edges of things," such as the specific contours of growth areas shown in PlanMaryland, they could be worked out with the state as the plan is revised. She said there have been several meetings with state officials whom she found receptive to suggestions.

Baltimore Sun reporter Arthur Hirsch contributed to this article