Citing mounting opposition, top General Assembly leaders are predicting that the legislature may delay until next year action on a Schaefer administration bill designed to protect Chesapeake Bay from continued suburban sprawl by the year 2020.
The leaders' predictions come even before the controversial growth management bill receives its first committee hearing next week.
Administration officials, however, say they have not given up hope on Gov. William Donald Schaefer's proposed Maryland Growth and Chesapeake Bay Protection Act, an ambitious land-management proposal that grew out of a gubernatorial commission headed by former Rep. Michael D. Barnes.
David S. Iannucci, the governor's chief legislative aide, said Schaefer's staff is working with opponents to try to boost chances of the bill's passage, one of the administration's top priorities.
"They're talking with us," Iannucci said. "No one's told us to jump in a lake."
The bill seeks to preserve the state's dwindling farms, forests and environmentally sensitive areas by focusing development around cities and towns or in designated "growth areas."
The plan has drawn praise from many environmentalists, but critics -- including local government officials, farmers and developers -- have complained that it is too complex to understand in a single legislative session.
Opponents also argue that the bill would usurp the traditional authority of local governments to plan development and would ignore the different growth patterns in the state's rural and urban areas.
Although the bill will not receive its first hearing until it comes before the Senate Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee Feb. 26, key leaders in the House of Delegates and the Senate said the legislature is likely to "shelve" the bill for further study over the summer.
So far, lining up to oppose any action on the bill this year are the Maryland Chamber of Commerce, the Maryland Association of Realtors, the state Farm Bureau and the Maryland Municipal League, as well as many builders, developers and landowners.
Also, two Eastern Shore senators showed their displeasure with the proposal by filing a bill called the Maryland Land Rights Protection Act. It would require the state to write tax assessment impact statements every time it passes new land-use regulations that could affect property values.
"With this degree of opposition this early, it appears that we're looking at a great deal more study," Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Prince George's, said yesterday.
Miller, who endorsed the Barnes commission's report when it was issued late last November, said he still supports the premise behind the bill. But he suggested that many landowners may not yet be prepared to accept a statewide zoning package.
"I think the idea is a fine idea and perhaps its time has come," Miller said. "But the idea has to be sold and it hasn't been."
House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., D-Eastern Shore, has been an outspoken critic of the bill. In a recent interview, he said a summer study is a "fair assessment" of the bill's future.
"As far as local policy is concerned," Miller said, "I'm not sure that people really understand what [the bill] does." He predicted that the bill will face "a ton of amendments."
The Maryland Association of Counties, for one, has proposed wholesale amendments, scaling back the state's role to advising local governments how to better manage growth.
Relegating a bill to summer study does not mean that it is dead. But the earliest it could be returned to the entire legislature would be in the 1992 session.
State Sen. Bernie Fowler, D-S. Md., a dissenting member of the Barnes commission, warned bluntly that opposition to the bill is so strong now that it will not pass in its current form. He urged giving the legislature another year to try to work out a more acceptable measure.
Citing "the shock waves" of earlier state laws limiting development in non-tidal wetlands and critical areas, Fowler, a leading environmental legislator, said that "there comes a time when you have to step back and take a look and make sure people are following you."
Iannucci said Schaefer's staff will continue to talk with groups opposing the bill and is optimistic that positive action can be taken on it this year.
"We believe very strongly that there is a general consensus that there is a problem with growth in Maryland and that there is interest in dealing with a strategy to control sprawl," he said.
Administration officials say the bill is necessary to manage a projected increase of 1 million people in the state population and 640,000 new households over the next 30 years. Without proper development controls, an additional 700,000 undeveloped acres could be consumed to make way for the population increase, they said.
Such sprawl -- with homes on half-acre to five-acre lots -- lets more pollution runoff into the bay and produces more smog than does more concentrated development, state officials say. Managed growth also can save taxpayers up to $1.2 billion for roads, schools and utilities over the next 20 years.
In an attempt to overcome early opposition, Schaefer proposed phasing in the new law, instituting interim development controls now and taking another year to write regulations governing local growth management programs.
Schaefer also earmarked $3.5 million in his proposed state budget to help local governments set up offices to devise growth management programs compatible with the overall state plan. And he pledged to help counties and towns pay for roads, schools and utilities to serve areas of clustered growth.
But some have complained that the bill now is too vague and leaves too many details to be decided later.
Environmentalists acknowledge that the bill is in trouble, though they blame public misunderstanding and disinformation from opponents.
"I project the bill will pass, but I would say it's not going to be in the shape it's in right now," said state Sen. Gerald W. Winegrad, D-Anne Arundel. "I think it's going to take some hits."