County Leery of State Planning Initiative

SNOW HILL- A state move to regulate development has Worcester County officials drawing battle lines.

“I think it is fair to say that the more we read, the more we become concerned,” said Director of Review and Permitting Ed Tudor in a memo to the County Commissioners.

Tudor explained that “PlanMaryland” as the initiative is being called, “comes perilously close to an outright intrusion into local planning and zoning autonomy.”

County Commissioner Virgil Shockley put it simpler.

“It’s the biggest land grab in the history of the state,” he asserted. “Ninety percent of decisions for zoning and building will end up in Annapolis.”

According to Shockley, PlanMaryland is the next stage of early programs involving Smart Growth and priority funding. Those programs attempted to structure new development around existing infrastructure.

“For the most part, it kind of worked,” said Shockley of Smart Growth.

He said that some of what the state originally did to encourage development in certain areas was logical and had benefits. However, Shockley contends that the restrictions are progressing too far, too fast, and that PlanMaryland in its current form is restrictive beyond a reasonable degree. In his opinion, the policies were drafted with a lack of perspective on the state’s part.

“In their little perfect world, they make this plan,” he said, adding that it’s easy for people in cities to view all counties with an urban mindset, despite the fact that a majority of Worcester is very different than Baltimore or Annapolis.

“Outside of the towns, we’re all rural,” he said “Everything is not set in a neat little box.”

With PlanMaryland, the emphasis on building alongside existing infrastructure will only become stronger, said Shockley. While it looks good on paper, he pointed out that most people in rural areas still have “a little Davey Crocket in them” and that they should not be forced to only build where and how the state dictates, especially since those decisions will be made hundreds of miles away from the actual locations.

The other commissioners agreed that PlanMaryland wouldn’t be as stifling if it was viewed more as a suggestive policy than an ironclad set of regulations. However, Commissioner Madison Bunting suspects that the State Secretary of Planning Richard Hall won’t be flexible.

“Mr. Hall views the comprehensive plan as rule and law,” asserted Bunting.

Another problem the commission has with PlanMaryland is the lack of transparency and cooperation between agencies.

“We struggle to maintain good relations with people at state,” said Chief Administrative Officer Gerald Mason.

But Mason said that the State is not working as closely with most counties on this as they should. While they are accepting feedback and comments, whether or not those comments will be incorporated into a final draft of the plan is anyone’s guess. Additionally, that final draft won’t be available for review by County officials before its implemented.

“You don’t get to see the final draft,” said Shockley. “There’s no chance of you seeing the revised draft so you can comment on that. By the time you see it, it will be too late.”

Tudor was also concerned about the efforts of his office not receiving the attention they deserved. He suggested immediate action.

“If the County Commissioners wish to have any stake in this process,” wrote Tudor, “I believe it is imperative that we promptly forward comments to the Maryland Department of Planning and follow these up with letters to our local legislative delegation.”

The commission decided to go a step further. Written comments can be ignored, they reasoned. However, a live discussion has a much better chance of getting results.

“I’d prefer to talk to him [Hall] man-to-man,” said Commission President Bud Church. “The best way to communicate is eyeball-to-eyeball…Bring them on our turf.”

The rest of the commission agreed. As for the plan as it stands, Shockley did admit that there were a few bright points, mainly an increase in coordination between state and local government. However, he believes the good parts are the minority.

“Seventy-five to 80 percent [of PlanMaryland] needs to be thrown out the window,” he said.

He predicts that the plan will “force you to go where you don’t want to go” and that state officials need to start paying attention to rural counties. Otherwise there might be a huge uproar.

“This one’s going to get bloody,” he remarked. “They [the state] haven’t thought this one through…This is about total control.”

“We are slowly grinding toward that ultimate goal,” agreed Tudor, who shared Shockley’s concern that the state is trying to usurp too much power.