County Sets Deadline For Comprehensive Rezoning

SNOW HILL – The long-awaited comprehensive rezoning document must be completed by the end of 2008, the Worcester County Commissioners told staff Tuesday morning.

The comprehensive rezoning, the final step in the new Comprehensive Plan process, has been delayed since the new plan was approved in March 2006, two years and three months ago.

The first reason given for the delay was the 2006 commissioner election. Sitting commissioners said then that they wanted to let the new board of commissioners oversee the process, and denied that the delay was due to the controversial nature of zoning changes that could be a problem for incumbent county officials in an election year.

In February 2007, the commissioners gave staff specific instructions to get to work on the rezoning, but the short discussion this Tuesday was the only public report on the comprehensive rezoning made by staff since those instructions, over 15 months ago.

Other projects, such as tracking legislation and testimony before the Maryland General Assembly on the new Critical Area law, took precedence, county staff and officials have said.

A recent letter from Assateague Coastal Trust (ACT), written by Coastkeeper and ACT Executive Director Kathy Phillips, threatened legal action if the work is not completed by the end of the year.

The report this week by Ed Tudor, director of Development Review and Permitting, was already scheduled, according to Commission President Virgil Shockley before the ACT letter was received in Snow Hill.

The commissioners did not discuss a timeline or specific benchmarks for the comprehensive rezoning work during this week’s meeting.

“We’ve given them a final date,” said Shockley after the meeting. “There’s going to be a couple of reports in the next month to two months. When the reports occur, we’ll have a better idea of the timeline.”

The comprehensive rezoning might not reach final approval by the end of the year, Shockley said, but the final draft will be complete.

The new rezoning code and maps must be finished before the next budget process begins in March 2009, he said.

“I think we made it very clear,” Shockley said.

That puts the completion date for the rezoning three years after the new Comprehensive Plan was approved.

The architects of the new zoning code, Tudor and his deputy, Phyllis Wimbrow, have now created a schedule, roughing out blocks of time to do the work. 

“We spent all last week. That’s all we did,” said Tudor.

Work has proceeded very slowly on the comprehensive rezoning, he acknowledged.

“We’ve had some challenges trying to get a number of things done,” said Tudor. “I’m not trying to say that doing the maps and doing the code is not important. It certainly is.”

Shockley said the staff now has a renewed focus.

“There were things that were beyond our control that take time, probably more than it should. It does help now that a date has been set,” said Shockley. “They will be kept on track.”

The new zoning code and maps have not been implemented, but actions unrelated to regulating growth like design guidelines and promoting spray irrigation are underway, Tudor reported.

The commissioners did not discuss implementing a moratorium on rezoning requests until the maps and code were revamped during the meeting.

“The overall consensus is if we can get it done without a moratorium that’s the way we’d rather do it,” Shockley said. “Six months is a long time to ask for somebody to freeze something in place.”

Consensus against a moratorium was reached during private discussions among the commissioners, according to Shockley, not in a public forum.

“I don’t really think the votes are there to put a moratorium in place,” he said.

Despite the new due date, Phillips is not satisfied with the commissioners’ actions. Nothing was said at the meeting about a timeline, benchmarks or even regular progress reports from staff.

“ACT is extremely disappointed by the commissioners’ lack of leadership on Tuesday. This was their opportunity to show the citizens of Worcester County they are committed to seeing the Comprehensive Plan rezoning completed. Instead, it was business as usual,” Phillips said. “Until the completed rezoning is adopted, every new application for rezoning not only takes away planning department staff time to finish the job at hand, it allows further development of this county that is not in sync with the vision of the 2006 Comprehensive Plan.”

The deadline does not have any weight behind it because the commissioners did not take a formal vote on a motion, she said.

“We have heard this before. It’s no different than every other promise that’s been made in the last two and a half years,” said Phillips. “They needed to take a vote in front of the public that showed every single commissioner was behind it.”