Smart Growth plan's 1st bite; Governor's budget cuts 5 projects from state highway plans; Anti-sprawl law blamed; Police training center in Sykesville also out; critics point to politics


Since he twisted enough arms to win passage of his Smart Growth anti-sprawl initiative two years ago, Gov. Parris N. Glendening has insisted that the law has teeth.

Last week, he bit. And localities from Western Maryland to the Baltimore suburbs to the Eastern Shore felt the pain.

The fiscal 2000 budget, released Thursday, showed that the governor dropped five long-anticipated highway projects previously included in the state's Comprehensive Transportation Plan.

In each case, the administration said the projects did not pass muster under the Smart Growth law that went into full effect Oct. 1. The law is intended to protect open space and to channel development into existing communities by curbing state spending that encourages sprawl.

The governor also cited Smart Growth principles as the basis for canceling plans to build a long-planned $53 million police training center in Sykesville.

Critics say the Sykesville decision was pure political payback by a Democratic governor against a heavily Republican county -- a charge the administration denies. According to Glendening spokesman Ray Feldmann, the governor simply decided the Carroll County town was not the best place to locate such a facility.

Whatever the motives, canceling that project was the governor's call and not required by Smart Growth law. While the Sykesville project would have been built in a semi-rural location, it is a designated growth area under the law.

The highway project cancellations -- two in Carroll County and one each in Montgomery, Allegany and Queen Anne's counties -- are a different story. According to administration officials, they were the result of the normal and soon-to-be-routine workings of the statute.

John W. Frece, Glendening's chief spokesman on Smart Growth, said the governor's policy is to strictly enforce the law's prohibition on state construction spending outside "priority funding areas."

He said all state agencies have been directed to review projects to see whether they are consistent with the law. The road projects were among the first to undergo review.

Further cuts predicted

"This is our first cut. It is fair to say these are not the last of the projects to be eliminated," said Marsha Kaiser, director of planning at the Maryland Department of Transportation.

The cancellations show that the administration is turning its back on a traditional method of dealing with traffic congestion -- building a bypass to route traffic around a town center.

The five canceled projects are bypasses -- around Westminster and Manchester in Carroll, Lonaconing in Allegany, Brookeville in Montgomery and Chestertown in Queen Anne's.

Administration officials contend that each of the bypasses would contribute to sprawling development in the areas surrounding the town.

They are supported by environmental groups, which have long been critical of the bypass strategy.

"Bypasses are the old solution that killed downtowns," said Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of 1,000 Friends of Maryland, a land-use advocacy group.

But some local officials are critical of the way the administration is applying Smart Growth standards.

Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan cited the example of Brookeville, a historic village in northern Montgomery County where President James Madison took shelter after fleeing the British burning of Washington in 1814.

Route 97, the main highway between Westminster and Washington and a busy commuter route, takes a sharp jog as it runs through the heart of Brookeville. Local officials say traffic congestion and frequent accidents are severely harming the quality of life in the mostly residential village.

Duncan, who counts himself as a strong supporter of the Smart Growth concept, contended that cancellation of the bypass "fails the common-sense test."

"We should not let Smart Growth destroy the town of Brooke-ville, which is what will happen if this bypass is not built," Duncan said. The bypass, he said, would not encourage sprawl because Brookeville is such a small town.

Frece said the administration's concern about sprawl involved more than the immediate Brookeville area.

He said a bypass there could contribute to unbridled development in western Howard and southern Carroll counties as well as northern Montgomery.

Del. Wheeler R. Baker, who represents Queen Anne's County, said he wasn't surprised at the deletion of the Chestertown bypass because there is no local consensus on the project. The Upper Shore Democrat said the need is not pressing now, but he's worried that the town will face severe bottlenecks 25 years from now.

Baker also voiced a common suspicion of Smart Growth in rural Maryland: "It looks as if we're taking away money from the [rural] Queen Anne's-Kent County area and sending it to the urban areas."

But Frece said the governor's decision does not mean planning money will be diverted from the communities where the projects were deleted. Instead, it will be placed in a fund to help the communities develop alternate solutions to their traffic woes.

Smart Growth 'lens'

Frece said the state is now in a "transitional period" where many road projects that predate the Smart Growth bill are still in the planning stages.

"Now they're being viewed through a Smart Growth lens," he said.

Del. Ron Guns, who as chairman of the House Environmental Matters Committee was the chief obstacle to the 1997 bill, questioned whether the cancellation of the projects violates a pledge Glendening made to "grandfather" construction money for projects that were already in the Comprehensive Transportation Plan.

Guns, who held a hearing on the Smart Growth budget cuts last week, said officials who testified could not clearly explain the criteria they used to delete the five projects.

In particular, the Cecil County Democrat questioned why local officials' warnings about safety problems on existing routes were not given more weight.

Pub Date: 1/24/99

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