New Md. Planning Initiative Worries Worcester Officials

SNOW HILL — PlanMaryland, a controversial initiative born in Annapolis that Worcester County officials worry could usurp planning authority, was passed quietly this week, catching the County Commissioners by surprise.

“The speed, in my opinion, was a little unexpected,” said Development Review and Permitting Director Ed Tudor.

“It’s a Christmas present,” joked Chief Administrative Officer Gerald Mason.

Though the commissioners didn’t expect PlanMaryland to get on the books so quickly, they have regarded its eventual passing as inevitable since it first popped on the radar months ago.

The plan is aimed at reducing new septic systems and runoff into the Chesapeake Bay, goals the commission said it agrees with. What the commissioners don’t agree with, however, are the steps the initiative takes towards achieving those ends. They also disagree with the amount of authority the plan passes to the state when it comes to making planning decisions.

“If you’re going to start blaming people, blame the right people,” said Commissioner Virgil Shockley.

Critical in his interpretation of the proposal since the beginning, Shockley accepted PlanMaryland’s passage by Gov. Martin O’Malley Tuesday with a frustrated chuckle and a shake of his head.

“This is the first step,” he said, adding that PlanMaryland will be the landing point for the state’s assault on local planning autonomy.

He remarked that Annapolis “can disguise it, put camouflage on it, or spray paint it” but he looked at the plan as an attack on rural counties like Worcester and an unwarranted one at that.

“The state holds Worcester County up as the example … we try to do the right thing down here as far as planning goes,” Shockley said.

The language in the plan is markedly more restrictive for rural counties that rely on septic as opposed to urban areas that generally have sewer systems. And, according to Tudor, PlanMaryland is especially unfair because the lion’s share of blame for the runoff issues it seeks to address are generated in urban counties, meaning the rural ones are forced to pick up the slack.

“Those who have done it wrong all along are going to benefit,” he told the commission.

What seemed to irritate officials the most wasn’t the plan itself but how little weight their apprehensions were given by the state, despite the version passed Monday being a third draft.

“The things I was concerned about still remain,” said Tudor.

After its debut last year, PlanMaryland went through two comment periods, the first last summer and the most recent this fall. Tudor pointed out that the ink had barely dried on the complaints on the previous version before Annapolis deputed a “revised” PlanMaryland, which while often structured differently than its predecessor, tended to contain most if not all of the previous document’s contentious language.

“It’s not something we readily agreed with,” said Mason.

The speed at which the revisions were distributed stirred suspicion in some members of the commission, including Shockley. He predicted that, though the time for comments has passed, the plan’s perceived inequalities will mean a tumultuous career for the policy in the coming months.

“I think it’s going to be a really ugly [legislative] session,” he said.