ANNAPOLIS — Gov. Martin O’Malley signed an executive order Monday outlining how to implement the state’s first long-range strategy to control growth as the population continues to swell, but opponents say the plan that includes sweeping land use implications should have gone through the General Assembly.
O’Malley was joined by former governors Harry Hughes and Parris Glendening for the presentation of PlanMaryland. The basic framework of the plan is in effect. However, the administration will be working with local governments for the next six months to develop a specific list of criteria for planning areas, and no major changes are expected to happen before a year’s time, said Maryland Department of Planning Secretary Richard Hall.
“This plan will target investments that we make, and we estimate that we can actually save money by targeting those investments in the smarter growth areas,” said O’Malley. “It is not a way for the state to take away local planning and zoning prerogatives. Our purpose is to work with local planning and local zoning, and we all need to participate in this in order to make it work.”
He pointed to the construction of a new public health lab adjacent to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore — instead of in the middle of a cornfield in Howard County as previously planned — as an example of the kind of changes PlanMaryland will bring. The idea is to steer development into places that already have infrastructure, instead of building too much on declining acres of woodlands and wetlands.
But state Sen. E.J. Pipkin, R-Cecil, has described the plan as part of “a war on rural Maryland.” Pipkin said if the governor is so confident it’s the right way to go, he should allow the General Assembly to debate it and decide whether it should be implemented.
“This is something that reaches every Marylander,” Pipkin said. “It has an impact on their local governance. It basically confirms a world view that not everyone in Maryland shares.”
O’Malley bristled at the suggestion that the policy is an attack on rural areas. He noted large investments in school construction funding in Western Maryland and on the Eastern Shore, as well as advances in opportunities for farms to plant crops that control soil erosion and protect water quality. The plan does not replace local decision making, O’Malley said.
Critics say the plan threatens local authority, because the state could steer money away from local projects. But O’Malley said the plan only aims to stop the unsustainable.
“The consequences, if you will, will primarily be budget consequences — as we make our capital allocations — and as each department makes its decisions based on what promotes smart growth versus what promotes sprawl and unsustainable land consumption,” O’Malley said.
Hall described PlanMaryland as a very general framework that could be changed or updated. He also said outreach to local officials already has reaped benefits.
“I know this will be harder in some places than others but we’ve already done it in one county in a matter of hours,” Hall said.
O’Malley underscored that the plan has been developed over four years after meetings with more than 3,000 people statewide. The governor also noted that the General Assembly first required preparation of a state development plan in 1959.
Smart growth has become all the more important, because Maryland has become the fifth most densely populated state in the nation, O’Malley said. While the debate is a difficult one, the state can’t wait, because the state’s population is expected to continue growing, the governor said.
Glendening, who has long been a smart growth advocate, said the tension has resulted from the traditional reliance on local decision making and concepts of private property.
“That worked fine for several hundred years,” said Glendening, who was governor from 1995 to 2003. “Now what we’re recognizing is that our resources are finite — that we cannot sustain decisions made on those principles — and so you can’t expect to immediately throw those principles out, but you can put some guidelines that start making better local decisions and then starts making better use of property.”
Hughes, a Democrat who is from Caroline County on the Eastern Shore, described the plan as an important step that will help protect the Chesapeake Bay and preserve agriculture.
“This is another step that’s going to be helpful in restoring that wonderful body of water, and also it’s going to be helpful for the agricultural community,” said Hughes, who was governor from 1979 to 1987.