SNOW HILL — Months after a technical deadline for action passed, the Worcester County Commission has finally decided in a 6-1 vote to reject tier mapping for the county.
The commissioners unanimously agreed that the legislation represented by Senate Bill 236 was an overreach by the state and an attempt to wrest planning control from local governments.
The specter of tier mapping has haunted Worcester for most of a year, with Jan. 1, 2012 the technical deadline to adopt a map. However, there is no penalty for adopting after that date. It wasn’t until this week and a final public hearing that the commissioners officially voted not to adopt the so-called “septic bill.”
“This was an easy decision for me,” said Commissioner Virgil Shockley. “I had no intention of ever voting for it.”
According to Shockley, the bill is another in a long line of legislation aimed at performing a snatch and grab on county’s autonomy.
“I have sat here since 1998 and I have watched the state, one law at a time, take away our rights,” he said. The new legislation requires the county to map land into one of four tiers, each of which would have specific restrictions regarding whether major subdivisions can be built on encompassed properties on septic or if they would require sewer. Because Worcester did not adopt any tiers, no major subdivisions on septic systems will be allowed in the county.
But it is better to reject the state’s influence and deal with the consequences than appease and steadily lose ground, said Shockley. His thinking fell in line with the majority of public comments.
“They’re attacking private property rights as if they were building a four-lane road,” said Delegate Mike McDermott.
An energized McDermott didn’t try to temper his criticism of the political culture in Annapolis and accused state legislators of trying to hijack control of Worcester and every other county in Maryland.
“How we grow and whether or not we grow should rest with this body politic and not another,” he said. “And quite frankly it shouldn’t just rest with planning and zoning.”
Resident Laura Dover warned of the slippery slope she saw in front of the commission. If they allow Annapolis to dictate how the county controls development in this case, he commissioners should plan on surrendering that authority forever.
“If you cede that right to the state, it will not be returned,” she said.
Other comments took an even starker tone and warned the commissioners that their vote on tier mapping would be remembered when the next election came along. Resident Kelly Kennett chastised the commission for what she perceived was a lack of outreach in contacting property owners to explain how the bill would impact them.
“Let’s look at what you guys are really doing. This is pathetic representation,” she said, adding that a series of “poorly-attended” public information sessions focused on the bill were insufficient.
Resident Curtis Andrews singled out Commission President Bud Church on his record.
“Mr. Church you say you’re a champion of property rights. I personally haven’t seen it,” said Andrews.
Talk of legal action by Worcester or a group of counties seeking nullification of the septic bill were also flirted with, though County Attorney Sonny Bloxom made it clear such a lawsuit would be costly to Worcester without much chance of success.
“We have a very liberal court system,” said Bloxom. “There’s no way the court system is going to overturn the legislation in this case.”
The legislation and the tiers did have some supporters in the room, though it would be fair to say they were at best reluctant.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever been as conflicted representing clients on an issue as today,” said attorney Mark Cropper. “I really feel like the choice given to my clients is the lesser of two evils: to map or not to map, between a rock and a hard place.”
Representing a cluster of landowners in the county, Cropper viewed the tier mapping as “unnecessary, unwarranted, unreasonable but at this point unavoidable.” While he suggested the commission adopt the tier maps, he also asked that they consider the burden placed on landowners, especially those with large tracts of property, when next reviewing Worcester’s Comprehensive Plan.
“At some point you need to stop doing ‘to’ landowners and start doing ‘for’ landowners,” he said.
Issues such as extending public sewer to facilitate more major subdivisions should be on the council’s radar, added Cropper.
That attitude of compromise, however, is exactly what the state is hoping for, according to McDermott.
“What I heard coming from Mr. Cropper was basically a white flag that’s saying it’s over, we surrender, we’re trying to salvage what little property rights we have left to develop,” he said. “And you know as well as I do that if a county isn’t developing, if we aren’t growing, we’re dying.”
Six of the seven commissioners took the same line with Commissioner Jim Bunting worrying that Worcester is headed down a road where county leaders will just be figureheads or puppets for Annapolis.
“We have to stand up to that,” agreed Commissioner Merrill Lockfaw.
Commissioner Jim Purnell remarked that “we are stepchildren” in Worcester in terms of how the state treats the county.
“We need to send a strong message to the state of Maryland that this is our county. This is our home and we’ll fight to keep it the way we think it should be,” he said.
Commissioner Judy Boggs was the lone voice in favor of adopting the tier maps. However, she agreed that the state was making a power grab but felt that adopting the tiers and pursuing a density waiver that would loosen at least some of the regulations in Tier IV zones was the most realistic option.
While Church admitted to being on the fence until the last moment, he eventually voted with the majority of the commissioners not to adopt the tiers, promising landowners that the county will look to follow Cropper’s advice and be more accommodating in the future with things like sewer.
The final vote was 6-1 against adopting the bill with Boggs opposed.