By LAURA SCHWARTZMAN and WILL SKOWRONSKI, Capital News Service
ANNAPOLIS (Feb. 20, 2008) - A smart growth initiative for areas likely to be affected by BRAC received wide support from local governments and community groups Wednesday, but some proponents said the plan needs stricter requirements for determining which areas can get benefits.
"It's a BRAC revitalization bill, but it doesn't require that there is a link to BRAC," said Dan Pontious, acting executive director of the nonprofit, Baltimore-based Citizens Planning and Housing Association, which supports the bill overall.
Pontious and others testified before a joint House committee hearing on the BRAC Community Enhancement Act, an effort by Gov. Martin O'Malley's administration to encourage growth in areas that need revitalization and are crucial to Base Realignment and Closure, or BRAC.
BRAC is the federal process to close or relocate military bases across the country. The state administration said BRAC could bring 28,000 new households and 60,000 military and civilian jobs to Maryland by 2011.
The influx requires upgrades to roads, transit, water systems, schools and housing. The administration hopes its smart growth proposal will prevent sprawl and make efficient use of scarce land resources.
Local governments, community groups and environmental organizations praised the measure for encouraging mixed-use communities and public transportation, but many urged the administration to focus on areas truly affected by BRAC-related growth, such as increased population and traffic.
If designated, local governments can get state tax rebates and apply for extra funding from certain state agencies. The four basic requirements are designation as a priority funding area, service or planned service from a public water and sewer system, designation as "mixed-use" development and a specific residential density.
The bill lists several other factors that are taken into consideration but are not absolute requirements, including proximity to certain MARC, Metrorail and Baltimore Metro Subway stations and evidence of a relationship to BRAC itself.
Alan Girard, senior land-use policy manager for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said his organization is "very supportive" of the plan but wants assurance the eligible zones have solid connections to BRAC and preserve natural resources.
He praised the bill's focus on railroads but wants pedestrians and bicycles to be considered as well.
Pontious, of CPHA, said his organization worries that new development projects might not offer enough affordable housing.
"The overall theme is that there are potential upsides and downsides to BRAC," he said. "It can be a real shot in the arm for our state's economy, and it can also be a huge traffic generator."
The state's BRAC efforts also got a boost in Aberdeen Wednesday with the announcement by Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) of $292,000 worth of federal funding for the Science and Mathematics Academy at Aberdeen High School.
"We need you. We need your talent. We need your dedication," Mikulski, a Baltimore Democrat, told a room full of students and teachers at the academy. "It's expensive to do this, but it will cost us more as a society if we don't do this."
Since 2003, Mikulski has secured $1.3 million for the program's equipment and teacher training.
The academy is partnered with the Department of Defense and Aberdeen Proving Ground and its curriculum includes accelerated math and science courses along with an intensive senior project. The objective is to provide a high-quality work force for the high-technology jobs brought by the military, its contractors and related businesses.
Mikulski said she wants Maryland to have 10 more programs like SMA.
This year's senior class is the first to graduate from the academy, which opened in 2004.
Jacob Burlin, 17, studied how to decontaminate mustard gas for his senior project and presented his findings to Mikulski.
"I've always liked doing projects that have a real-world application,'' Burlin said, referencing the Iraq war.
The Abingdon native plans to study engineering at the University of Maryland, College Park in the fall.
"Right when BRAC hits full force this class will just be graduating from college," said SMA Coordinator Donna Clem. "That was always a goal, that the SMA would home grow scientists, engineers."
The planning for SMA began in 1999, former SMA Coordinator Robert Johnson said, when a volunteer group named Army Alliance at Aberdeen Proving Ground realized that 50 percent of the base workers would be eligible to retire within a few years.
The Army Alliance secured $3 million in state and local funds to build the academy along with Aberdeen High School, which was being built at the same time. Mikulski's funds, Johnson said, have been used for equipment.
Mikulski's grants have come in the form of earmarks, a controversial way for Congressmen to allocate funds for pet projects, commonly known as "pork" in political lingo. Earmarks are attached to other legislation, which may have nothing at all to do with the funds being earmarked.
Until recently, earmarks could be inserted into bills anonymously, with no way to identify the sponsor.
Taxpayers for Common Sense and TCS Action (www.taxpayer.net) identified Mikulski as the 21st worst abuser of earmarks out of a total of 100 senators for FY2008. The organization also identified southern Maryland's U.S. Representative, Steny Hoyer (D-5), as the fourth worst abuser in the House for FY2008. Both rankings are based on earmarks that the politicians sponsored both individually and in conjunction with another congressman.