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Joe Nathanson: Counties face implementation of PlanMaryland

A recent meeting with Rich Josephson at the state planning department gave me a window into the next steps in Maryland’s long-running campaign to manage its land wisely. Josephson, as director of planning services, is the Maryland Department of Planning’s point person for moving the State Development Plan — PlanMaryland — into its implementation phase.

Maryland has been grappling with managing its growth for many decades. In fact, it was back in 1959 when the General Assembly passed legislation directing the planning department to prepare a state development plan.

As years passed, new laws were enacted, including the 1992 Planning Act, with its initial set of “visions” to promote compact development and protect sensitive areas; the 1997 act that gave us Priority Funding Areas, both existing communities and areas targeted by local government for future growth; and the 2010 Sustainable Communities Act.

Meanwhile, actual development on the ground was too often taking place beyond designated growth areas, farmland was being consumed at alarming rates, and the cost of supporting ever-wider suburban expansion was becoming unsustainable, in the view of state planners.

In response, Gov. Martin O’Malley directed the planning department to produce the long-called-for state development plan. After more than three years, scores of meetings, forums and public hearings, PlanMaryland was completed late last year.

The governor issued an executive order in December and set in motion the next phase of the process.

At the heart of this process is the identification of planning areas. The hope is to achieve more targeting within existing priority funding areas. The state has offered five types of planning areas for consideration by local planners:

-Targeted growth and revitalization areas;

-Established community areas in priority funding areas;

-Future growth areas;

-Large-lot development areas; and

-Rural resource areas.

With these designations, the state’s approach is intended to encourage more compact development, better use of past investments in infrastructure and slowing the rate of land consumption. This approach is also designed to enlist the Maryland’s Smart Growth Subcabinet and coordinate the deployment of state and local resources to support sound growth practices.

The categories of planning areas seem to cover a lot of ground, with plenty of room for flexibility and local interpretation. But this is not easily accepted in some quarters of the state.

Grave concerns in Carroll County

In Carroll County, the planning director is “gravely concerned” that PlanMaryland presents a “constantly shifting target,” given that the state planning agency is still writing its plan.

In my telephone contact with Philip Hager, Carroll County’s newly appointed planning director, he seemed to echo complaints of county commissioners, as reported in the press. He deplored the state’s “one size fits all” framework which might not work well in a rural county.

Asked what he saw in the future, he was not very encouraging, indicating that there is “not much room for negotiation.”

Questioned further how PlanMaryland would thwart Carroll County plans in any specific instance, Hager referred me to his staff person, Brenda Denne. She also noted that it may be too soon to be designating planning areas because PlanMaryland is “not yet complete.”

From a technical standpoint, she is correct, but the mechanism for “completing” the plan calls for active engagement between local planning officials and the state extending through much of this year.

A head start in Howard County

Howard County has taken a different approach. In a telephone interview with Marsha McLaughlin, Howard County’s director of planning and zoning, I learned that the county actually has a head start on the process.

In response to the state’s earlier Smart Growth requirements, the county’s General Plan 2000 had established a growth boundary and a PFA comprising the land served by public water and sewerage. The county is now in the process of updating the 2000 plan.

The draft of that update, PlanHoward 2030, now on its website, clearly sets out the county’s targeted growth areas, as well as providing more clarity regarding the management of its rural land.

McLaughlin suggested, however, that little was to be expected from the state in the way of new resources for the county’s planning priorities. “Look at the battle over the funding of teachers’ pensions”, she noted, adding “The best we can hope for is better coordination among the various state agencies.”

That seems to be a very modest payoff for all the effort involved and might justify the resistance coming from Carroll County and other exurban and rural counties.

Given current concerns about constrained budgets at every level of government, the PlanMaryland process might have devoted considerably more of its energies to the fiscal benefits of sound development practices.

Joe Nathanson heads Urban Information Associates Inc., a Baltimore-based economic and community development consulting firm. He contributes a monthly column to The Daily Record. He can be contacted at urbaninfo@comcast.net.