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Harford, Howard executives fault growth proposal


A proposal by a governor's commission to require Baltimore and all 23 counties to win state approval for land-use plans is being sharply criticized by two county executives who say it will mean state takeover of a job best left to local governments.

The Commission on Growth in the Chesapeake Bay Region has recommended legislation that would require local jurisdictions to place each acre within their boundaries into one of four land-use categories as part of a growth-management plan they would have to submit to the state.

The plans, which would have to be completed by Dec. 31, 1993, could be vetoed by the state Office of Planning and returned to the counties for revisions. Counties could face a lawsuit from the state or a loss of state funding if they refused to comply.

Commission members say the proposal is aimed at slowing the pace of growth in Maryland, which has seen development of 144,000 acres -- an area twice the size of Baltimore -- over the past five years.

A landmark report issued two years ago by the 2020 panel, a group appointed to study the effect of suburban sprawl on the Chesapeake Bay, warned that uncontrolled growth could have devastating environmental and economic consequences. It urged Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Washington to take actions similar to those being proposed by the commission.

Two new county executives are criticizing the proposal, saying it robs the counties of their autonomy when it comes to planning.

"It's Big Brother coming down on local government," said Harford County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann.

Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker said the recommendations would override the county's General Plan and take away local control of land-use planning." He said he is prepared to fight the measure, known as the "Maryland Growth and Chesapeake Bay Protection Act of 1991."

The plan would limit development in rural areas and increase the number of homes that could be built in the eastern end of Howard County, where it could mean more densely populated communities than those in Columbia, said Uri P. Avin, the county's former planning director and now a special assistant to Mr. Ecker.

Officials in Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties were less critical, saying that they have had regulations similar to those suggested in the report -- steering growth to areas with roads and sewers and restricting development near streams, valleys and other environmentally sensitive areas.

"Our preliminary take on it is that we're basically comfortable with it," said David Almy, chief aide to Anne Arundel County Executive Robert R. Neall. "The previous administration was interested in this, so 90 percent of the recommendations already are in effect in Anne Arundel County."

"It's like what we've been trying to do for years in targeting environmentally sensitive areas for conservation and allowing development in growth areas like Owings Mills and White Marsh," said Baltimore County's planning director, David Fields.

But Mr. Fields said whether the county supports or opposes the measure will be up to County Executive Roger B. Hayden. Mr. Hayden declined to comment on the proposal, saying last week that he was unfamiliar with its details.

Despite her criticism, Mrs. Rehrmann said Harford also has been targeting its growth to areas like the Route 24 envelope around Bel Air.

"We're already doing what the report talks about, as far as development is concerned," she said.

"The problem of the 2020 report is that in the beginning, it says local planning is best," said Mrs. Rehrmann, a former two-term state delegate. "Then later on in the back, it says local planning should be approved by the state."

Commission members say the goal of the four land classifications is to steer growth away from environmentally sensitive areas.

In the growth areas, average residential density would be relatively high -- the goal is "at least" 3.5 dwelling units per acre. Commercially zoned land would be set aside to provide for 1.4 jobs per household.

In rural areas, development would be limited to one home per 20 acres, again with an allowance for clustering. Growth would be frozen in so-called sensitive areas -- land in 100-year flood plains, along stream banks and steep slopes, and in habitats of endangered species. New buildings, roads or power lines could be built "only if no practicable or feasible alternative exists for locating the structure outside of the sensitive area," the draft bill says.

A public hearing on the measure is set for Saturday in the Joint Hearing Room of the Legislative Reference Building in Annapolis. The commission will discuss the proposal before forwarding recommendations to the governor for introduction as legislation in the 1991 session of the General Assembly.

State officials say that the proposal also may alleviate some of the political pressures that have influenced land-use decisions.

In Howard County, for example, the proposal would dramatically cut back the number of homes that could be built in the environmentally sensitive western end of the county, Mr. Avin said. Under the commission's proposal, homesites would be restricted to one house per 20 acres.

Current zoning allows a home there on every 3-acre residential lot. The General Plan, a general guide to growth, recommends clustering houses at a ratio of one unit per 5 acres, Mr. Avin said. A similar plan introduced by three Howard County Council members two years ago stirred up major opposition in western Howard County. The legislation died when one of the sponsors, facing a firestorm of opposition from the landowners, withdrew her support.

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