Panel's plan to help bay is criticized Growth curbs called power grab by state


ANNAPOLIS -- Critics of draft legislation to protect the Chesapeake Bay by curbing suburban sprawl packed a public hearing here yesterday, with many municipal and county officials complaining the measure would strip them of planning and zoning powers.

Several speakers urged the Governor's Commission on Growth in the Chesapeake Bay Region, which drafted the plan and staged the hearing, to postpone sending any growth-management scheme to the governor until late next year.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer has said he intends to win passage of the commission's proposals in the General Assembly session that begins Jan. 9.

Environmental groups and others supported the commission's draft legislation -- though some complained that it did not go far enough in some areas, such as the protection of endangered species.

And a spokesman for Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said the mayor fully endorses the plan. The spokesman said Mr. Schmoke believes protecting the bay "can only be achieved through increased state presence in the planning and development process."

But the hearing, which drew 110 registered speakers and a standing-room crowd in the Joint Hearing Room of the Legislative Services Building, was dominated by complaints from local officials, planners, farmers, landowners and others. They feared that the measure, if approved, would deprive them of power to guide growth in their communities.

Thomas X. White, a Greenbelt councilman who sat on a panel of speakers from the Maryland Municipal League, called the draft bill "direct and heavy-handed intervention into what has historically been the concern of local decision-makers."

Criticism of the bill focused on its setting density standards for rural and suburban developments and granting the state Office of Planning -- which reports directly to the governor -- veto power over individual county growth management plans.

Any appeals would be referred to a Growth Management Appeals Board, appointed by the governor.

The legislation, Mr. White said, would replace the judgment of local elected officials with that of "state-appointed bureaucrats."

Some local officials said they already have stringent growth-management plans in place that reflect unique local conditions and were worked out after years of tough negotiations with citizens and developers. The legislation would junk those plans, they said.

Several officials said they would welcome a new law that would give the state the authority to set broad growth management goals but would let local governments decide how to achieve them.

"I believe our planning system is not broken," said Guy W. Hager, executive director of the Baltimore Regional Council of Governments. "Let's build on our strength and use what we have in place to improve it."

Several officials from the Eastern Shore, where existing restrictions on development of the bay shoreline and non-tidal wetlands affect large tracts of land, took a tougher stance.

"We challenge the notion that growth management is a statewide problem that should be dealt with at the state level," said Karen Hales of the Dorchester County planning office.

An aide read a statement from Sen. Frederick C. Malkus Jr., D-Dorchester, who called the measure a "land grab," and warned the governor and legislators to be "prepared to reap the harvest of a revolt against the taking of landowner rights."

Under the draft legislation, cities and towns would be encouraged to develop vacant land.

New residential developments would be required to have a density of at least 3.5 homes per acre, with nearby zoning for enough shops and industries to provide 1.4 jobs per household.

Rural areas would be restricted to no more than one home on every 20 acres. Development would be frozen in environmentally fragile areas, including flood plains, steep slopes, streams and the habitats of endangered species.

The plan, unveiled Nov. 27, was designed to focus growth rather than limit it, reducing storm-water runoff and auto air pollution by clustering homes, jobs and businesses near existing roads and sewer lines.

Michael D. Barnes, the commission's chairman, said during a break in the hearing that county and municipal officials will realize, once they have a chance to study the proposal more closely, "that the implementation of the program is definitely going to be done at the local level."

The 33-member commission is expected to meet Tuesday to consider amendments to the draft legislation, approved by a nine-member subcommittee last month.

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