Environmentalists lost their top legislative priority in Annapolis yesterday when a committee killed a proposal to expand the legal rights of citizens to oppose development projects.
The bill would have allowed more people to take legal action to stop projects that they believe threaten the environment or public health. Specifically, they could have challenged state permits for projects ranging from trash incinerators to golf courses.
The House Environmental Matters Committee defeated the measure on a 12-9 vote after businesses complained that it would unleash a slew of nuisance suits and hurt economic development. Lobbyist Ira C. Cooke, who represents a New Hampshire-based waste-management company, said his client was "pleased at the responsible vote. It demonstrates the concern that this type of legislation could stop too many appropriate projects."
The Maryland Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Industrial Office Parks and Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. lobbied heavily against the bill.
Environmental groups chose to look on the bright side yesterday, noting that a similar bill passed the state Senate by a vote of 29-18 earlier in the day. Last year, the bill died on the Senate floor by one vote. "This was a big step forward for us," said Tom Grasso, acting executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's Maryland office.
Gov. Parris N. Glendening told the measure's sponsors recently that he had problems with the proposal and suggested that both sides work on it over the summer.
Mr. Grasso said he was open to that idea.
"With a strong showing in the Senate and a close vote in the House [committee,] we'd be happy to work on it over the summer and pass a bill next year," he said. Under current law, citizens can sue to prevent the state from approving a project only if they live adjacent to the site and can demonstrate that they or their property would suffer some kind of unique damage.
Environmentalists had proposed loosening those restrictions. Under the House bill, residents would have to show only that the environment in their neighborhood would suffer. And they could take legal action as long as they lived in the same jurisdiction as the proposed project.
Before yesterday's vote in the House committee, some delegates argued that citizens already have ample opportunity to oppose state permits at public hearings. They also raised concerns that environmental groups unaffected by proposed development would use the measure to stop construction.
"This is clearly nothing more than an opportunity to give certain groups [legal] standing where they may not be the aggrieved party," said Del. J. Anita Stup, a Frederick County Republican. Del. James W. Hubbard, who sponsored the House bill, denied that it would inspire litigation.
The arguments on both sides of the issue overwhelmed at least one legislator.
"My head's spinning," said freshman Del. Katherine Klausmeier, a Baltimore Democrat, who ultimately voted against the bill. "It sounded like such an easy concept, but it's not."