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Plan gets high marks

The Baltimore Sun

Feeling pinched by a weakening economy and higher taxes, Marylanders are generally looking forward to the growth expected from military base expansion rather than worrying about how it might worsen traffic jams or crowd classrooms, a new Sun poll shows.

Forty-nine percent of those asked said they thought it would be a good thing for the state if a projected 28,000 new families move here in the next few years as a result of the nationwide base realignment and closure, commonly called BRAC.

That is three times the number who foresee negative consequences from the influx of people around the state's military bases, primarily Aberdeen Proving Ground and Fort Meade.

"Anything that brings money into Maryland, God knows we need it, with taxes and everything else," said Tom Nolan, 72, of Millersville.

Nolan, retired from the Coast Guard, said he visits nearby Fort Meade frequently to shop at the post exchange and get medical care. He said he thinks the base is big enough to accommodate a lot more workers without causing gridlock.

"I don't see any congestion there, except at morning rush hour," said Nolan, one of several poll respondents who agreed to answer follow-up questions from reporters.

Just 16 percent view the influx of new families as "a bad thing," according to the poll conducted by OpinionWorks of Annapolis. An additional 6 percent said they thought growth around the bases could be both good and bad for the state.

"BRAC represents a ray of light," said Steve Raabe, president of OpinionWorks, which interviewed more than 900 Marylanders by telephone from Jan. 6 to Jan. 9. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

Economic worries occupied the minds of many of those polled - 52 percent said they believe Maryland's economy is getting worse, and 28 percent listed high taxes as the biggest issue facing the state. And while Marylanders have indicated in earlier polls that they are unhappy with the pace and scale of development in their communities, respondents said in interviews that they see the influx of families in economic terms.

"I don't think it'll be bad," said Vancie Battle, 67, of Riverdale in Prince George's County.

The owner of a cleaning company, Battle said he has seen a downturn in business lately, which he attributes to a generally weakening economy, and not just the slumping housing market.

With base growth, Battle said, he anticipates "possibly new jobs opening up and new neighbors, in a sense."

But 29 percent said they are not sure what to think of the base-related growth yet - an indication, Raabe said, that the public has not focused on something that is at least a couple of years off.

"It's hard to anticipate what the impacts are going to be, and once the impacts come, if it's something they're going to feel or it's something that's just going to meld into their lives," the pollster said. "People may not yet be truly grappling with what they're going to face in terms of traffic and the lack of housing."

Officials estimate that 15,300 defense workers and "embedded" contractors will relocate to bases in Maryland, mainly Aberdeen and Meade, and that the influx could spawn 27,000 more jobs of all types. Some project a total approaching 60,000 jobs, with the vast majority concentrated in the Baltimore region and in Montgomery and Prince George's counties.

Planners project that those jobs will yield about 28,000 new households statewide, with the bulk settling within a 45-minute drive of Aberdeen or Meade. The added households would represent about 15 percent of the region's overall growth, officials say, but could put additional strains on already jammed highways, overtax some communities' schools and utilities and further squeeze the availability of affordable housing.

But, when asked if they thought the changes brought about by base realignment would affect them personally, only 29 percent said yes. Half said they did not expect to be affected, while 21 percent said they were unsure.

Nancy Hampt, for one, does not expect to notice the base-related growth. The 61-year-old resident of Upperco in northwestern Baltimore County said she doubts she will encounter base commuters as she treks to and from Highlandtown, where she is a secretary in a doctor's office.

"It shouldn't cause me any more traffic or any kind of thing," she said. "And I don't have children in school anymore, so that wouldn't be an issue, either."

The Sun poll queried voters across the state, but the favorable views of base-related growth were no less strong among residents living in the counties most likely to be affected by it.

Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, who has been spearheading the O'Malley administration's efforts to prepare for base-related growth, said the poll results show that "Marylanders are embracing BRAC."

As he speaks around the state on the topic, Brown said, he has found that residents are anxious for information about how all of the people will be accommodated but seem genuinely enthusiastic about thousands of new high-paying jobs that require highly skilled workers coming to Maryland.

"Marylanders understand that it is the single largest growth activity since World War II but that it's just part of a larger context of growth occurring in the state," Brown said. "People aren't fearful of BRAC. They understand that it's a real opportunity for Maryland to fulfill its responsibility to our country."

The O'Malley administration has proposed spending nearly $450 million on 31 transportation projects serving the bases, aimed at shortening commutes in a state with the second-longest work trips in the country. About $141 million has been proposed for school construction and renovation in the region most likely to see base growth, along with $182 million in upgraded water and sewage treatment systems.

Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of 1000 Friends of Maryland, saw the poll results as a vote of confidence in the plans of local, state and federal governments to smooth the way for the base buildup.

"If we do it right, we will benefit economically, and we could even help fix some of the environmental harm that has been done already in this area," she said. But the opportunities could backfire if the challenges are not properly met, she said.

"If we do it wrong, we are going to end up with increasingly gridlocked communities, further bay degradation, overcrowded schools and all those other things that make people unhappy," Schmidt-Perkins said.


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