Environmentalists urged citizens Monday to rally around the proposed Chesapeake Bay protection bill during a forum explaining the sweeping statewide "growth channeling" plan designed to slow suburban sprawl.

The two-hour presentation at the Glen Burnie Improvement Association building was one of four sponsored statewide by the Maryland Campaign for the Environment. Speakers provided the crowd of 25 citizens with the rationale and bare-bones details behind the complex initiative that will be placed before the General Assembly in January.

Stephen Bunker, assistant director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's lands program, did not touch upon the local impact of the bill. But he summarized its impact statewide as "the first step to a rational pattern to growth in Maryland."

The draft plan would require the state's 23 counties and Baltimore to zone all lands in one of four categories: "Developed," "Growth," "Rural Resource" and "Sensitive." Virtually all the growth would be restricted to the Growth and Developed areas.

One of the bill's most controversial aspects pertains to the Rural Resource area. The bill calls for statewide controls similar to Anne Arundel County's own Agricultural Preservation laws to prevent farmers from subdividing their lands for development beyond one residence per 20 acres.

"As it stands, the bill would down-zone 70 percent of the land in the state to one unit per 20 acres. As long as that's the main premise of the bill, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation will support it," Bunker said.

His support was echoed by the Sierra Club's Joan Willey and Maryland Waste Coalition president Mary Rosso.

But Bunker and other observers are predicting major changes during the legislative process that could erode the bill's strength.

"It's in its pure environmental stages right now. You have to sift in your reality in the legislature," Senate Majority Whip Michael J. Wagner, D-Ferndale, said yesterday.

"Lately it's been vogue to vote for environmental issues just because it's the thing to do. (Landowners) from the Eastern Shore and Baltimore County have made good cases lately as to why some parts of the bill may need changes."

Wagner pointed to a recent case in Baltimore County where a judge upheld a farmer's right to subdivide his 186-acre property against the wishes of the county's Department of the Environment.

Bunker, Willey and Rosso said they were worried that the bill already has been diluted by compromise and doesn't go far enough.

Bunker said he was particularly concerned about phrases in the bill that would actually reduce protective measures instituted by the counties.

A passage in the bill defining Sensitive areas reads: "A Jurisdiction may not adopt or enforce a more strict definition or standard for protection than established by this act."

Assistant county planning and zoning officer James J. Cannelli cited two cases where the state bill would actually limit existing county laws. It would forbid the county from protecting the banks of small streams with less than 400 surface acres and would also shrink lands protected under the county's broad definition of the 100-year flood plain.

"It's troublesome that in some cases the state is setting maximum, not minimum, standards. We might have to pull back," Cannelli said.

Other than where the bill weakens county ordinances, he said that most of the proposals made by the 2020/Barnes Commission -- which drafted the protection act -- reflect policies already instituted in Anne Arundel under former Executive O. James Lighthizer.

Lighthizer was one of four senior council members advising the Barnes Commission. Summaries and copies of the bill are available through the Maryland Office of Planning, 301 W. Preston St., Baltimore, MD 21201.

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