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Owens' port council vote is heavier than it looks


THIS WEEK, Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens will make one of the most important public policy decisions of her young administration.

The Maryland Port Administration's Land Use Advisory Council meets Wednesday to consider whether a proposal by Chesapeake Motorsports Development Corp. to build a 61,000-seat auto racetrack at the abandoned Cox Creek copper refinery will affect the Port of Baltimore's economic development prospects.

Ms. Owens' vote on this advisory body is likely to take on great significance because politicians, developers and community groups are paying close attention to how Anne Arundel's new county executive handles this difficult issue.

Ms. Owens is in a tough spot politically. Many North County elected officials and community groups strongly oppose the track. Former County Councilman Thomas W. Redmond Sr.'s zealous support for it was a main reason he was defeated for re-election last fall.

John G. Gary, who also lost a re-election bid for county executive, was perceived as colluding with Mr. Redmond and circumventing the review process on behalf of the project.

Bucking the opposition

Not only are residents opposed, several elected officials have taken firm stands against it. Third District Councilwoman A. Shirley Murphy was swept into office by vocally opposing the race track and other developments.

State Sen. Philip C. Jimeno is another important politician who opposes Chesapeake Motorsports effort to build in Pasadena.

Ms. Owens risks their ire by casting what is otherwise a token vote on the port advisory council.

At the same time, Ms. Owens must consider the benefits of attracting a major development project that could contribute as much as $5 million a year in tax revenue.

Large amounts of new taxes are hard to pass up. Ms. Owens knows she does not have enough revenue to meet all the demands on government.

As much as she wants to increase education spending, repair aging schools and invest in services for the elderly, the weight of tax cap makes any spending initiatives difficult.

Other than the proposed Arundel Mills outlet shopping center near Baltimore-Washington International Airport, Ms. Owens readily admits there is no other project in the works that can provide as big a financial boost as the racetrack.

Considering the spinoffs

She also must consider the tangible spinoffs from the project such as automotive shops catering to racers, hotels and restaurants, along with the intangible benefits such as media exposure for a major race.

If Ms. Owens opposes the track, developers considering Anne Arundel might interpret her stand to mean that she is susceptible to pressure from well-organized, vocal citizen groups.

Some developers with large, possibly controversial projects may decide to steer clear of Anne Arundel rather than deal with a county government perceived to be hostile to development.

To maintain her neutrality, Ms. Owens must put the onus on Chesapeake Motorsports to make its case in Pasadena.

At this juncture, she can justify her vote on the port council by saying it is premature to pull the plug. She can argue that she has already searched for -- and failed to find -- an alternative site in the county.

Owens' way out

Ms. Owens is in a strong position to say that if a race track is to be built in Pasadena, major issues about community impact must be answered.

Then she can turn to the developer and demand concrete answers about traffic, noise and general impact.

This would have happened already had the project passed through the quasi-judicial special exception process.

Because Chesapeake was able to convince five of the previous council members to pass legislation that allowed the project to be handled administratively, many residents believe the race track was railroaded through and that they were excluded from meaningful participation.

Take the high ground

Ms. Owens has the opportunity to take the high ground. She can say that unless the developer allows the public to participate in the approval process in a meaningful fashion, the project dies.

She can then turn to the community groups and invite them to assemble their best arguments as to why the race track is unworkable in Pasadena.

In this way, Ms. Owens won't have to commit herself until Chesapeake Motorsports and the community have exhausted their respective cases.

Perhaps at the end of this process, the best political decision will be self-evident.

Brian Sullam is The Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

Pub Date: 2/07/99

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