County commissioners, farmers decry Chesapeake Bay preservation bill


ANNAPOLIS -- County commissioners, farmers and citizens jammed an Annapolis committee room yesterday to denounce an administration bill aimed at managing growth and preserving the Chesapeake Bay.

While opponents at yesterday's hearing before the Senate Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee agreed the bay needs to be protected, most said the administration's bill infringes on property rights, places undue restraints on rural counties and does not take local development plans into account.

The bill may be headed for summer study.

Commonly known as the 2020 bill, the Maryland Growth and Chesapeake Bay Protection Act is the result of 18 months of study by a gubernatorial commission, which was formed to guide the state until the year 2020. It seeks to channel growth into areas already developed while leaving other areas untouched.

In the last five years, 71,000 acres of forest have been developed in Maryland and 168,000 acres of agricultural land have been lost. If nothing is done to reverse the trend, preservationists contend 700,000 acres will be lost in the next 30 years.

Sen. C. Bernard Fowler, D-Calvert, who was a member of the commission and sits on the Senate committee that will decide the bill's fate, said he wants to see a joint committee study the bill during the summer.

"I don't want us to lose sight of the need to have a growth strategy, but I think we have to do a precise study," he said. "Give us 12 months and we can come back with a plan that the governor will be proud of and so will we."

The issue touched nerves on both sides, as some 350 opponents and proponents filled every seat in the auditoriumlike joint hearing room.

William C. Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said failure to enact the bill could doom

the bay.

"Can we really afford to stick our heads in the sand and pretend that time will stop?" he asked the committee. "I for one don't want to be asked by my grandchild: 'Why didn't you do something to save the bay?' "

Edward Allen, president of the Maryland Farm Bureau, said one of the bill's major flaws is that final approval of local development proposals would rest with state administrators and not with state legislators.

"We feel that it is absolutely ridiculous to give this kind of authority to an administrative office," he said. "The power that they would have is unbelievable."

Sen. Gerald W. Winegrad, D-Anne Arundel, one of the senate's leading environmentalists, agreed the bill needed some work, but said it did not need to be delayed for a whole summer of further study -- often a device used to kill a proposal.

"We've got to work on it. In the present status it won't pass. I know it won't pass," he said. "We have to accommodate these people."

Even with accommodation, Senator Fowler didn't give the bill a good chance.

"I don't think at this point there's enough evidence before our committee to get it out," he said.

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