Thursday, February 22, 2007

Growth Task Force a good first step; now we need a Growth Boundary

For too long, the City of Annapolis and Anne Arundel County have lacked a coordinated effort to manage growth and traffic on the Annapolis Neck Peninsula. The city's recently appointed Growth Task Force may signify the start of a more productive approach.

Mayor Ellen Moyer, County Executive John Leopold and I have all appointed members to this committee (Read the recent Baltimore Sun article about the committee's formation). This three-way participation is important for two reasons.

First, the committee needs buy-in from both the City and the County for its recommendations to have much of a chance. A committee appointed solely by one would be unlikely to carry much weight with the other. Because the County and City both had a role in appointing the Growth Task Force, they both have a vested interest in seeing that its recommendations reach fruition.

The second reason is symbolic but no less important. After many years of minimal city/county cooperation, this joint effort sends a strong signal of change. The mayor and county executive, working together, are the only ones who can set the tone. To that end, both Mayor Moyer and County Executive Leopold deserve credit for starting off on the right foot.

This joint appointment of the members is a good first step. The recently-announced appointment of city and county staff support is also positive. But the commitee has a long and difficult road ahead. For one thing, neither the city nor county has a long-term vision for the city's boundaries. Should the city continue to annex land or not? If so, where and under what conditions? No consensus has ever been reached about a long-term city growth boundary.

Need for a Growth Boundary

During my five years on the Annapolis City Council I was often frustrated by the piecemeal approach toward annexation. In the absence of a long-term growth plan, individual annexations were shaping our destiny for us. Each annexation became the proverbial tail wagging the dog.

The city administration supported each annexation request for several valid reasons: to maintain a robust tax base; to provide for efficient delivery of services; and to control the development of land right on its borders.

Non-city residents angrily opposed the annexations for equally valid reasons: concern about more traffic when Forest Drive was already over capacity; concern about the environmental impact of losing more land to development; and fear that the city would impose its urban vision of development on their suburban neighborhoods.

The one thing people on both sides of the debate agreed on was the need for a clear plan to govern annexations. Everyone agreed that the existing piecemeal approach made no sense.

Now is the time to do it. The Growth Task Force is the first body in years with the stature and political buy-in to pursue this goal.

Easier Said Than Done

Despite the need for an urban growth boundary, and despite the widespread agreement that we need one, there is a reason why we don't have one yet: talking specifics is a lot harder than talking in generalities. In other words, it's fine to talk about a growth boundary just so long as that boundary is nowhere near me.

I do not have a specific proposal to offer, but such a plan should not be the brainchild of one politician. It requires public input and serious discussion among stakeholders to find common ground between the city's and county's general development plans.

This is where the Growth Task Force comes in. It is comprised of both city and non-city residents. It enjoys the support of political leaders without the baggage of being perceived as "political." It has a unique opportunity to chart a new course for our future.

As difficult as this goal may be to achieve, we need to try. Otherwise we are willingly condemning ourselves to more of the status quo: an adversarial situation in which pro-annexation forces and anti-annexation forces, like two opposing armies, hunker down in their trenches and fight fiercely over a few acres of ground -- well-intentioned people expending tremendous amounts of time and energy fighting each other instead of working together in support of a shared plan.

Fortunately, we know that this goal is achievable. Other jurisdictions around the country have done it. Our neighbor Baltimore County has done it with its long-standing URDL (Urban Rural Demarcation Line). Granted, Baltimore County has no municipalities, but it faces the same development pressures we do.

If Baltimore County can do it, why can't we? It's time for us to try.