County Citizens Express Rezoning Concerns

SNOW HILL – The draft rezoning and subdivision regulations must match the award winning 2006 Worcester Comprehensive Plan, citizens emphasized at a public hearing this week.

Over 340 people attended the hearing on the draft comprehensive rezoning regulations Tuesday night, packing the standing room only Worcester County Commissioner chambers in Snow Hill, with the majority of the 62 speakers outlining their concern that the draft rules do not follow the 2006 Comprehensive Plan.

Speakers expressed particular concern over the new A-2 zoning designation and new residential zoning in areas where no growth was delineated by the Comprehensive Plan.

“There’s much to be proud of. Unfortunately, there are significant shortcomings,” said attorney King Burnett, representing the Assateague Coastal Trust. “There are too many to cover here.”

Burnett said it was important to remember that the purpose of the zoning code was to implement the Comprehensive Plan.

“You expressed pride in it, but in very significant ways you have flatly undermined and made proposals not in conformity with that plan,” Burnett said.

One example is the plan’s requirement that estate zoning be eliminated, and returned to agricultural zoning, instead of retention or upzoning to residential.

The requirement that the rezoning must match the Comprehensive Plan was strengthened by the Maryland General Assembly in 2008, he pointed out.

“A key question in my mind is whether the new zoning matches the award-winning Comprehensive Plan,” said resident and businessman Macky Stansell.

Several speakers pointedly reminded the County Commissioners that the 2006 Comprehensive Plan was developed over a couple of years with citizens heavily involved throughout the process.

Bob Heim, speaking later in the meeting, said, “I hope you’re getting the message. These people are not very happy.”

A lot of people wanted to see smart growth in Worcester County, and this principle was included in the Comprehensive Plan, Heim said.

“All of a sudden things have changed. Special interests have come to the fore…I suggest you go back and redo this,” he said.

Dave Wilson, executive director of the Maryland Coastal Bays Program, urged the commissioners to remember that the Comprehensive Plan safeguards the long-term economic and environmental viability and is not about individual properties.

The goal of the Comprehensive Plan was to protect water quality, Wilson said. “We can’t do that without zoning,” he said.

“The so-called A-2 zone isn’t an agricultural zone. It looks like a place holder for development,” Burnett said. Twenty-lot subdivisions are allowed in the A-2 zone, he said.

“It’s not dense enough to make a livable, walkable community,” said Harold Scrimgeour.     

“You have to do the same thing for a winery or a garden center as you would have to do for a prison,” Rick Blevins said.

“It appears to be a kind of blank check not included in the comprehensive plan,” said Ralph Lohman. president of the Bishopville/St. Martin’s Neck Association.     

“The A-2 will allow too much residential and commercial growth in areas not designated for growth,” said Mary Ochse She said she does not understand why this zone is called agriculture at all.

“I don’t see how golf courses and campgrounds are agriculture-related businesses,” said Carol Kane.

“It could provide us with more jobs,” Gabe Purnell, a resident of that area, said.

Speakers also showed concern over A-2 zoning meant for an environmentally and culturally sensitive area east of Berlin, home to the headwaters of four creeks and several historic communities.

“It is crucial we steer additional development from this area,” said Lower Shore Land Trust Director Kate Patton.

“More development here could seriously impact water quality and wildlife,” said Steve Farr of Grow Berlin Green. The culturally significant neighborhoods in this area should be free from the wide-ranging commercial and residential uses of the A-2 zone as well, Farr added.

Residents of South Point were vocal about the change in their community from estate zoning to residential zoning as shown in the new zoning maps, a distinct change from the Comprehensive Plan.

 “Many of us were caught flat-footed. Not one person there liked what we heard,” said Hawley Waterman, president of the South Point Association of a recent community meeting. “We don’t want South Point rezoned…Many people feel it’s not compatible with 2006 [Comprehensive Plan].”

Resident Christine Lieb felt that the areas allowed to remain in estate zoning bordered wealthy neighborhoods. Lieb recalled that one-time South Point resident Judge Theodore Eschenberg was instrumental in changing South Point over to estate zoning. “Would that be changing now from estate zoning to residential if he still lived there?” she wondered.

“It’s not an area that’s got carrying capacity for development,” said resident Tom Patton.

The best way to keep economic vitality in the county is through a transfer development rights (TDRs) program, said developer Todd Burbage.

Farmers would keep some economic power by being able to sell the development rights allowed on their property to a developer who wants to build somewhere else.

“It needs to read that the rights are perpetual,” said Blevins. “Any deals that are made need to be consistent with family farms, not corporate development or big business.”

There was a consensus on TDRs among speakers, former Planning Commissioner Ed Ellis pointed out, with support from both developers and environmentalists.

The 2006 Comprehensive Plan included a number of strategies to protect water quality and alleviate nutrient loads on local waters, Coastkeeper Kathy Phillips said. The plan called for zoning and development regulations to offset nutrient impacts. However, the draft rezoning regulations do not specifically address that, Phillips said.

Additional buffers and landscaping need to be required to protect waterways near development that have been identified as impaired to protect the waters from post-construction run-off, she said.

Bill Killinger called for more protections for passive open space, and a requirement that 50 to 90 percent of a subdivision’s open space be set aside for recreation in that space like birding and hiking, a move that would increase property values.

Open, natural space needs to be preserved, and not developed, said organic farm owner Carl D’Allessandro as an economic booster. The strength of the county’s tourist, seafood, and agricultural industries depend on open space and water quality protection.

He also asked that residential development be reconsidered, with 3,100 housing units currently on the market.

Farm-based businesses need to be allowed in the agriculture zone, Scrimgeour said. Currently, a farmer’s only option to add value to his land is to subdivide the permitted five lots or put up chicken houses. Under the draft rezoning, he said, “You can grow popcorn but you can’t sell bags.”

The agriculture zone has been reduced from 54 uses to 31. “This change effectively downzones 80 to 90 percent of the county and the people this effects most are the farmers,” said Ryan Bergey, representing the Friendship Community Association.

Consolidation of development rights between contiguous parcels owned by the same person could create building rights where there were none, Patton said. The regulation assumes that development rights exist on all parcels, even though some parcels that cannot handle septic, with features like wetlands or ponds, do not actually have that right.

Several speakers criticized the county’s public information process. Scrimgeour, who has a planning background, said it was important to get the public involved early in the process, not at the end. He criticized the lack of a formal presentation at the county workshops, saying that no one heard any idea of the county’s vision for the rezoning.         

The informational meetings “fell short of adequate,” said Bergey.

The county should have had a workgroup of stakeholders working on the draft regulations, Blevins said.

“Your constituents here in the audience have only had three weeks to digest this,” said Phillips.

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