SNOW HILL — The Worcester County Commissioners got a chance Tuesday to question Richard Hall, Secretary of the Maryland Department of Planning, about the soon to be implemented Plan Maryland (PlanMD).
Though the entire commission felt PlanMD is being rushed, Hall maintained that the proposal will go into effect on schedule.
According to Hall, up until this point the state has lacked a cohesive arrangement amongst all of its agencies and programs.
“We’ve been on a football field for decades and had no game plan for what play we’re calling,” he said.
Hall added that PlanMD does not give the state additional authority, only organization.
“This plan does not give us powers we don’t already have,” Hall said. “It’s not prescriptive.”
Still, several commissioners were concerned about how PlanMD might affect local government’s autonomy.
“One size does not fit all … every county is different,” said Commissioner Madison Bunting.
While he acknowledged that PlanMD might make sense for places like Baltimore and western Maryland, Bunting was skeptical about it being as natural a fit for Worcester. Like several of his colleagues, he was uncomfortable with some of the language in the plan. In particular, he referenced one passage that stated local codes and standards may need to be “redrafted” to conform to PlanMD. Hall admitted that the language might not be as clear as it could have been and promised that issues like that would be clarified in the redraft of PlanMD due out in September.
Development, Review and Permitting Director Ed Tudor shared Bunting’s fears that PlanMD would come to dictate how Worcester operates.
“I just worry that everything will now be evaluated by PlanMD,” he said.
Tudor wondered why the plan had to go “to such extremes” regarding priority funding and the state’s “Smart Growth” policies. It was Tudor’s worry state funding would eventually be difficult if not impossible to get in areas that did not have a priority funding designation.
“Those kinds of things trouble me,” he said.
The main assurance that Bunting asked for was that under PlanMD “the individual county retains the right to do what they think best for the county.” While Hall wasn’t comfortable giving a blanket guarantee that Maryland would never make suggestions about how Worcester could better handle growth, he did tell Bunting that the state was not trying to supersede local authority, but rather work with them to develop a collective strategy to protect agriculture and preserve land.
While Bunting acknowledged that PlanMD’s goals of preservation and preparing for population growth are noble, he reiterated that Worcester has already taken more than a few steps in that direction on its own.
Commissioner Virgil Shockley also had serious issues with how PlanMD might treat farmers and agriculture.
“There’s a goal in the state to save farmland,” he admitted.
However, Shockley caveated that PlanMD would have the opposite effect, and that its restrictions on farmland would hurt farmers instead of help them.
“You’re literally hampering agriculture,” he stated.
Shockley, a farmer himself, explained that limits the plan had on subdividing land could generate serious issues when a farmer wanted to slice off a piece of land for their children or grandchildren.
“You have to realize that people have to stay on the farm … The young generation has to be allowed to live there,” he said.
Hall admitted that Shockley’s point was one being reiterated by a number of other commenters on the plan and would likely see some changes in the redraft.
One other point Shockley was adamant on is that farmers have a better idea of how to balance growth and preservation than most.
“Farmers were the first environmentalists and they will be the last environmentalists in this country,” he said.
Hall was receptive to the commission’s policy concerns, and assured them that most if not all of what they had brought up would be clarified in the September redraft. One issue that he couldn’t satisfy the commissioners on, however, was just how quickly PlanMD is coming into play.
“They think there should be more time given to this process,” said Commission President Bud Church of his fellow commissioners.
Church called the 120-day comment period on PlanMD “totally unrealistic.” He informed Hall that the county’s comprehensive plan took years of development, and affected far fewer individuals and less total area than PlanMD.
“What is the urgency to get it done that quickly?” he asked Hall.
“We think we’ve gone at a pace that makes sense,” Hall told the commission.
Hall, while sympathetic, told the commission that he had made a commitment to have the final draft of PlanMD on Governor Martin O’Malley’s desk in October. Where it goes from there, he said, is up to O’Malley.