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Counties bristling over Plan Maryland rules

OCEAN CITY — The brewing discontent by county officials over Gov. Martin O’Malley’s Plan Maryland project at the Maryland Association of Counties annual meeting is not just due to bristling over state authority or even property. It is money.

While money could be cited for a host of political disagreements, it is actually true in this case. Both sides are participating in good faith but with no mutual trust.

Using geographic information systems and projected population information, the Maryland Department of Planning came up with a thick book of guidelines aimed at helping both the state and its individual jurisdictions to prepare for the continued significant population and job growth in Maryland.

Over the last decade, developed lands have outpaced population growth by 300 percent and the number of new homes developed is twice the number of people who have moved into Maryland to occupy them. According to state planners, those homes are on much more acreage than is wise or necessary.

From the state’s perspective, as an example, reducing lot sizes from 2½ to one-quarter of an acre will both triple the average tax revenue from the properties and reduce the amount the state needs to spend on road construction and maintenance.

The counties worry, in general terms, that they will lose development opportunities or be forced to fund the infrastructure for them without state support.

When the first draft was released in April, planning departments all over the state struggled to make sense of it. It isn’t that the proposed codes were difficult to understand but rather that between staff cuts and workload, county planning offices have been swamped. A cursory glance was all that many of them needed to write the plan off as unacceptable.

As O’Malley indicated in his remarks Friday, and even opponents of the plan mentioned, having a plan is the only way for municipalities, counties and the state to successfully navigate projected growth.

“These are not the problems and challenges that present themselves to the people of Wyoming as acutely,” he said.

The problem is that counties don’t want to be locked into the state’s plan for the future. State officials maintain that nothing is going to be forced on the counties. This is only true in the most technical sense of the word.

The fight over Plan Maryland is best described in hypothetical terms:

Imagine a time in the future where a county has the opportunity to green-light a housing project that would require school and road infrastructure that doesn’t conform to the Plan Maryland vision. The county would have the power to accept the project but the state would reserve the right to refuse to build the roads and schools that might be needed as a result of the county’s decision. This is where counties begin to get nervous.

Counties’ overriding concern is that many have recently- or nearly-completed comprehensive plans. They fear their work and investment might come to naught. But that isn’t true according to MDP’s Andrew Ratner.

Ratner has been fielding questions and participating in the 120 stakeholder meetings across the state during which the MDP took more than 3,000 comments on the rough draft.

“We heard loud and clear that one size doesn’t fit all,” he said. “That said — sprawl is the same.”

Corey Pack, a member of the Talbot County Council, was clear that his Eastern Shore county didn’t disagree in principle with the plan but had serious reservations about the implementation schedule. It allows for 30 days of comment in September before the plan is finalized and sent to the governor’s desk.

Talbot County’s reservations over the project highlight how complicated an issue accepting Plan Maryland is for rural counties.

According to Pack, census numbers indicate Talbot County grew 3 percent during the last decade, and the growth occurred entirely in Easton, as has been part of the county’s comprehensive plan.

As Talbot prepares its new comprehensive plan — revised every five years — the town planners haven’t had the opportunity to pull apart the latest revision of Plan Maryland, which was released July 1, yet let alone deal with the draft due out Sept. 1.

“Local planning departments are overwhelmed,” Pack said. “What’s the rush?”

From O’Malley’s perspective, the rush is that the state committed to compose and act upon this plan nearly 40 years ago, and for political reasons never got around to it. Making Plan Maryland happen is O’Malley’s way of stopping the buck.

“We have been failing for a generation or more to grow in a way that is sustainable,” he said. “The red light is blinking.”

The fact that the red light is blinking tends to concern the counties as well, but many at the meeting didn’t see a rush to judgment as the solution. Setting aside concerns over whether they’ll get state funding if they don’t grow the right way, the counties almost unanimously want a clause in the Plan Maryland document that limits the state’s rights to withhold funding for projects related to unapproved growth.

Although he deflected the issue at first, when pressed, O’Malley said unequivocally that he would not endorse any statement in the plan that contains the phrase: “Thus far shall the state go and no farther.”

Some at the forum pointed out that, good faith aside, O’Malley could not be counted to remain in office indefinitely — O’Malley had joked as the meeting began that he would not seek a third term — and the lack of guarantees in the law leaves open the door for the rules to be abused and potentially even tightened by future administrations.

Although he didn’t dismiss the notion of giving the counties more than 30 days to evaluate the final draft, O’Malley noted those seeking extensions’ vast differences in opinion. Some said an additional month would be sufficient, some said a year, and others cited no specific amount of time.

“Does anyone want to wait 20 years?” O’Malley said. “Surely there must be someone.”