Just when state legislators thought it was safe to champion government-backed redevelopment of older areas, along comes a well-organized, well-practiced militia to shoot them down. Self-proclaimed "rabble rousers" who battled for individual property owners' rights in the face of Baltimore County's bid last year to flex condemnation muscle in three aging neighborhoods have set their sights on a new target.Senate Bill 202, recently introduced into the General Assembly and pushed by Gov. Parris Glendening as a tool for controlling sprawl, would ostensibly promote the governor's Smart Growth agenda by forming a revolving grants-and-loans fund for metropolitan neighborhoods that want to stanch the outward flow of businesses and residents. By committing $45 million over three years, the Glendening administration hopes to stoke interest in "community legacy projects" that, according to the bill, would allow for the acquisition and demolition of properties "to enhance the use of land." Funds would also be earmarked for new residential or business developments in areas that say they want them.
The measure "ties all of our other Smart Growth programs together," Glendening spokesperson Raquel Guillory says. She cites an example of the bill's purported range of effect: "Before, if people wanted to have a 'streetscape' program to improve their shopping district, it had to be on a state road or one that has [state-funded] mass transit. This bill would create a mechanism that allows communities [situated on nonstate roads] to improve the way they look."
Guillory says the Senate bill and its House of Delegates companion would not increase or enhance any jurisdiction's powers of condemnation. But the bill's nebulous phrasing vis-à-vis property acquisition troubles some members of Essex-Middle River Community in Action (EMRCIA), the group that led last year's fight to overturn legislation expanding Baltimore County's condemnation authority. The group's rabble rousers (as they have called themselves since a county legislator dismissed them as such last year) fear that sketchy wording such as "enhance the use of the land" could be interpreted broadly--to the detriment of longtime property owners and residents--or that the proposed five-person "community legacy board" made up of gubernatorially appointed Cabinet members could steer funds to politically connected developers.
"This one has a lot of SB 509 to it," says EMRCIA member Bob Delsignore, referring to the bill that set off last year's Baltimore County battle. "202 doesn't name a vehicle for the taking of property, and that has us worried."
True to form, EMRCIA helped deliver dozens of protesters to a Feb. 6 hearing before the Senate's Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee. The rabble rousers say they'll ride this bill just as they did SB 509 (with which SB 202 shares a sponsor, Baltimore County Democratic Sen. Michael Collins; he's joined this time around by several Baltimore City colleagues, including Clarence Blount, Joan Carter Conway, George Della, Delores Kelley, Nathaniel McFadden, and Perry Sfikas). "We'll stay right on top of this one," Delsignore says. Watch this as-yet-uncondemned space.