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November 29, 2006

Blackwater and municipal red ink run deep

Kevin E. Dayhoff

The state announced in November it was going to purchase hundreds of critically sensitive acres in the vicinity of the Blackwater Wildlife Refuge in Dorchester County on the Eastern Shore.

There are many who felt that developing such a sensitive portion of the Chesapeake Bay was not good land use and ultimately was detrimental to the health, safety and welfare of all Marylanders. The challenge was to find a legal basis order to challenge the development and not set a precedent for further Annapolis interference with the decisions of local government.

It is always easy for those in the cheap seats to rail against a proposed development. Elected officials, who hope to carry-out the wishes of the electorate, also needed to find the legal basis to accommodate those wishes.

If elected officials do the populist thing instead of following the law, they risk spending taxpayer dollars in litigation, in which ultimately there is a high statistical probability they will lose.

If the greater community does not want a farm, open space, a forest or waterfront property developed, then buy it - and provide local government with a viable alternative revenue source.

Purchase it privately, or the state or federal government should buy it or facilitate a non-governmental agency, such as an environmental group to buy it.

But the government should not "take it" without just compensation, as most liberal environmentalists and anti-development groups would have it done.

In the Blackwater example, a November 6th Baltimore Sun article explained that the state planned "to spend $10.4 million to preserve about two-thirds of a contested development site near the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge" that was legally open for development.

The operative point in the Blackwater matter is at the heart of the public policy debate throughout the state and certainly in central Maryland; and that is the question of how to deny development, for the perceived greater public good, on property that is legally available for development?

Of course, in the Blackwater matter, there is the added dynamic that the elected officials made decisions that facilitated the development and to that many just shook their heads and said "just what were they thinking?"

Cambridge officials wanted the tax revenues? But tax revenues from housing developments are a municipal-heroin, as once the high wears off, the deleterious economic drain on a municipality to service housing never ends.

As is often the case in many examples, the challenge to deny a development is complicated by pathway-conflict and the big picture as to how to fund necessary upgrades in municipal infrastructure without taxing folks right out of their homes.

Declining municipal revenue is a challenge that does not seem to be going away. State changes in municipal water allocations, federal and state unfunded mandates and citizens' demands for increased infrastructure and services have to eventually be paid somehow.

For some municipalities in the past, the answer has been a Faustian Bargain of having developers pay for the infrastructure upgrades.

In an era when existing citizens want no growth and no tax increases, but more services and improved infrastructure, even that bargain is becoming unavailable for anyone who wishes to balance the municipal check book and remain in office past the present term.

As to the water supply issues, perhaps another "fee" will eventually have to be tacked-on the water bills like the "Bay Restoration Fund" developed by the Ehrlich administration to pay for the overdue environmental upgrades to wastewater treatment plants.

As far as road improvements, more revenue needs to flow into municipal coffers from the transportation funds collected by the state. Read: increases in the gasoline tax.

As far as the school construction needs, impact fees may need to be revisited and raised.

As you can quickly see, there are no good options. Get the money from developers in return for allowing them to build houses - a solution no-one seems to want any longer. Or increase the taxes that no-one wants to see raised.

Meanwhile none of these issues are going to get any prettier. Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of 1000 Friends of Maryland, was quoted in that November 6 Sun article as saying Governor Ehrlich could have saved taxpayers $10 million by opposing the project "much, much" earlier "by using the state's Office of Smart Growth to say we are not going to allow this kind of growth on sensitive land."

Many are in agreement that such a development should not be allowed on sensitive land, but on what legal basis did Ms. Schmidt-Perkins suggest Annapolis or the Office of Smart Growth intervene?

You cannot take away a person's purchased property rights by plebiscite or mob-rule. Property rights are legal rights, whether or not they are popular; even if many agree that we don't like particular proposed land-use.

Equally disappointing in the article was the comment attributed to Cindy Schwartz, executive director of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters, who asked "Is this the kind of governor we want, one who will do this at the last minute, or one who will do the right thing the first time?"

This makes one's head hurt. First of all, Ms. Schwartz was not appropriately identified as a rabid Mayor Martin O'Malley supporter.

Do what "right thing the first time?" Maybe Ms. Schwartz needs a basic lesson in civics? Municipalities have justifiable bristled at outsiders and "central government" interference with what is designated the purview of local government by the Maryland law.

Since the early 1950s, there has been an all out assault on municipal powers by the Maryland General Assembly. Many are beginning to wonder out-loud (if not pre-maturely) if the liberal environmentalists, who supported Mayor O'Malley for governor, supported him because he will promote their agenda by government takings, raising taxes and eroding the powers of local government.

If so, the next four years ought to be excruciatingly interesting.

Kevin Dayhoff writes from Westminster: E-mail him at:

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