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Officials say they'll fight for state aid County fears plan to restrict sprawl will impede projects; Reaction called overblown; Smart Growth draft excludes much of Howard, Ecker says

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Gov. Parris N. Glendening's plan to curb sprawl has drawn the ire of Howard County officials, who claim it would deprive some of the county's fastest-growing areas of vital state aid for road and school construction.

State officials say the plan, called Smart Growth, would direct most aid to more densely populated, older communities but should not interfere with funding to such newer areas as Columbia, North Laurel and most of Ellicott City.

Howard officials disagree and are preparing to battle what they say is state meddling in the traditionally local arena of land-use policy.

County Executive Charles I. Ecker -- relying on a preliminary map of growth areas plotted by state officials -- said Glendening's plan would direct state aid for Howard mostly to areas east of Interstate 95, leaving the rest of the county with little funding.

He said this would have a "devastating" effect on county finances and force delays in long-planned school and highway projects.

The county already has the highest per-capita debt in the state and can ill afford to take on more debt to replace state funding, Ecker and school officials say. The plan might even force the school board to reconsider year-round schooling to handle burgeoning enrollment.

"I'll probably be buying school sites down east of 95 and busing them in," joked Ecker, a Republican considering a 1988 run against Glendening, a Democrat.

Ecker also said Glendening's plan would imperil road projects, including the proposed widening of Route 32, improvements to U.S. 29 intersections in Scaggsville and the intersection of Route 175 and Snowden River Parkway in east Columbia.

Tom Bass, an official with Maryland's Office of Planning -- which helped draft the plan -- said Ecker's fears are overblown: "I would say [Howard County] wouldn't see any general effects."

To which Joseph Rutter, Howard planning director, responded, "Will he put that in writing?"

Glendening proposal

Under Glendening's proposal, state infrastructure aid would be available to all incorporated towns and cities, all areas within the Washington or Baltimore beltways, and all commercial and industrial areas.

Densely developed residential areas -- with a minimum of 3.5 units per acre -- also would qualify. And school renovation and expansion projects -- rather than construction of new schools -- would automatically meet the Smart Growth criteria, state officials say.

Glendening has said he does not intend to usurp local land-use control, but wants to focus state aid in places that are already densely populated to prevent sprawling development.

If current trends continue, new development will consume 500,000 acres of farm and forest land -- roughly the size of Baltimore County -- in the next 25 years, Glendening has said.

Sprawl also tends to cost more in infrastructure because roads, parks and schools must be built ever farther from existing towns and cities.

Opposition expected

"This is going to be a major part of the 1997 legislative package," said Glendening spokesman Ray Feldmann. "This is something he believes in very strongly and will push for very hard."

But Glendening can expect opposition from Howard officials.

The county has no incorporated towns or cities and no areas inside the beltways. Few of its residential areas are dense enough to qualify as designated growth areas, according to the state's preliminary map.

Columbia has about 2.4 units per acre, but Bass said it would likely qualify because Glendening's plan would exclude parkland and open space in its calculations. Under that formulation, Columbia has about 4 units per acre, county officials said.

But if Glendening's entire package passed without changes, county officials calculate that Howard could lose $100 million in state road construction funds over the next five years.

School construction

In addition, Ecker and school officials said, the plan jeopardizes the county's school construction plans.

In recent years, about a quarter to a third of the Howard school system's construction budget has been provided by the state.

About $9 million in state funds has gone to the current fiscal year's $34.5 million capital budget.

The school board's capital budget request for next year is $35 million, and school officials hope to receive $8 million to $10 million from the state.

In the next 10 years, Howard plans to build two elementary schools and three middle schools -- in addition to the two new elementaries and one middle school expected to open in the fall under this year's capital budget.

Ecker said all of those projects are located outside the preliminary map of the governor's priority growth areas.

State officials say that map is likely to change, and even if it doesn't, the additions and renovations planned for at least nine other schools over the next decade would qualify for state aid.

Projects essential

But Howard school officials said all of the projects -- new schools and additions -- are essential to provide enough classroom space for the enrollment growth expected in Howard schools in the next decade.

"We've already pared down our budget, reduced the scope of projects as much as possible and delayed them as long as we can," said Howard schools Superintendent Michael E. Hickey.

Ecker said the school system might have to reconsider such unpopular ideas as year-round education as alternatives to currently planned school construction -- a position shared by school board Chairwoman Sandra French.

The board rejected year-round classes last year, saying they were unnecessary because the school system would be able to afford to build needed classroom space.

"My reason for voting against it was that there wasn't a crisis with school construction," said French, who said board members have not been briefed on Glendening's proposal.

"If this funding were to go down, it could be considered a crisis, and I think we may have to consider it again," she said.

Though county officials seem unanimous in their opposition to Glendening's plan, reaction among Howard's delegation in the State House breaks down largely along party lines.

Overreacting

Republicans generally oppose it. Democrats quibble with preliminary details of Glendening's plan but support its goals. Months of lobbying by Ecker, Hickey and school board members are likely ahead.

Del. Elizabeth Bobo, a west Columbia Democrat and former county executive, said Ecker is overreacting to a well-intended effort to control growth.

"I think our county folks look at anything that puts any restrictions on development at all as bad, so I'm not surprised," Bobo said. "Anything that [Glendening] does in that way is only good news for the state."

But House Republican Leader Robert H. Kittleman, who lives in sparsely populated West Friendship, said Glendening's plan would force people to "live like sardines."

"People who don't want to live that way shouldn't be forced by government decree and social engineering to live that way," Kittleman said.

Glendening, he said, "is going to have some real, real problems getting that through."

Pub Date: 12/29/96

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