- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 11, 2006

ANNAPOLIS — The town of Denton has doubled its size in the last four years and wants to keep expanding. Trappe plans to annex thousands of acres and boost the town’s population by about four times.

Maryland’s towns and cities are using annexation powers to do more than tack on a few acres here and there.

Amid fears that annexation is fueling unchecked growth in parts of the state, especially the Eastern Shore, some wonder if municipalities’ powers to stretch their borders need to be reined in.

“There’s been an explosion of these annexations around our communities,” says Rob Etgen, director of the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy. “It’s clearly too much, too fast.”

A bill has been proposed in the General Assembly to tweak annexation rules so that cities have less power to widen their boundaries for new homes and businesses.

But the measure has set up a feud between city and county governments over who has the power to say where growth goes.

The question of annexation rules is really a debate over how Maryland should manage growth.

Annexation powers often are portrayed as a smart-growth tool. If an existing town can absorb adjoining land and steer high-density development there, the thinking goes, the countryside beyond a city’s borders will remain rural and sprawl will be minimized.

Mr. Etgen and others say some cities are twisting annexation rules for short-term benefits. They point to the tiny Talbot County town of Trappe, which could grow from 450 homes to 2,200 homes within two decades under the town’s annexation plans.

Or to Denton, where town officials annexed 853 acres on the Choptank River that are contiguous to the town only by the water.

“The current setup is unacceptable,” says state Sen. E.J. Pipkin, Stevensville Republican, part of a diverse group of senators backing a bill to rein in city annexation powers.

Sponsors include Democrats and Republicans, urban and rural lawmakers.

The proposed bill would give counties more say in municipal annexations.

It also would allow residents within a mile of a proposed takeover — not just those within the targeted area — to call for a public referendum before an annexation is approved.

One of the sponsors is Democratic Sen. John C. Astle, whose district includes Annapolis, which has used annexation in recent years.

Mr. Astle says cities are being used by developers to subvert the smart-growth principles behind annexation laws.

Instead of annexing suburban fringes, he says, some towns are grabbing open land for a subdivision in hopes of getting more tax revenue and developers are in charge of some annexation decisions.

“You know the only people I’ve heard from on this bill? Developers,” he says. “Developers are the ones who win with this annexation. They win because they sell more houses and get more money.”

Not so fast, town officials say. A coalition of mayors has called the annexation bill a power grab by county governments, setting up a clash this session between two important lobbying groups in Annapolis.

“They’re going to tell me what’s in my best interest? It makes no sense,” says C.L. Rippons, mayor of Cambridge, where an annexation and planned subdivision near the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge has been portrayed by environmental groups as an example of sprawl disguised as smart growth.

“My city planners and the staff have as much knowledge, and in many cases more knowledge, than their counterparts on the county level,” Mr. Rippons says.

In Salisbury, where annexation also has been used in recent years, Mayor Barrie Tilghman brushed away the argument that sprawl will slow down if counties get more involved in annexation decisions.

“This is not about annexation. This is about growth,” she says. “Annexation puts growth in the metro core. If we don’t have growth in the metro core, then we are going to see it move out into the county open space and farm land.”

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