SNOW HILL – County officials voted not to rezone thousands of acres in the South Point area after hearing from several citizens opposed to the proposal.
On Tuesday the Worcester County Commissioners voted 6-0, with Commissioner Jim Bunting abstaining, not to rezone E-1 estate properties in the Route 611/Ayres Creek/Route 376 area to R-1 residential. Though the rezoning had been given a favorable recommendation by the Worcester County Planning Commission, area residents and environmental groups objected to the change, citing concern that it could bring more development to the neighborhood.
“To place more people in a hurricane zone is really not a responsible thing for us,” Worcester County resident Joan Scott said.
According to county staff, the planning commission began considering a sectional, or comprehensive, rezoning of the E-1 properties in the South Point and Route 611 neighborhood after four E-1 properties in that area requested and subsequently were granted a change to R-1 zoning last year. Ed Tudor, the county’s director of development review and permitting, said that while the change to R-1 would increase density in the area, members of the planning commission thought growth would be limited by forestry regulations, critical area stipulations and septic tiering.
At Tuesday’s public hearing, roughly a dozen citizens spoke against the rezoning proposal. South Point Road resident John Harrison told the commissioners he was concerned about what a change from E-1 to R-1 would mean for his 89-acre farm. He said he grew corn and soybeans and operated a commercial greenhouse there and didn’t want limitations placed on his property.
While officials told him he could continue to grow crops on an R-1 property, he would need approval from the county’s board of zoning appeals if he ever wanted to expand his greenhouse operation.
Berlin resident Dave Wilson said he opposed rezoning the E-1 properties for various reasons.
“I’m having a little trouble following the logic of this,” he said. “We want to get rid of the E-1 because it encourages sprawl so we’re going to double the density so we don’t encourage sprawl.”
He said he worried the South Point area could become intensely developed such as Ocean Pines or Ocean City. He added that septic technology was constantly improving and would allow more property to be developed.
“The wastewater treatment regime is changing rapidly right now…,” he said. “You could see a lot of change probably in the next eight to 10 years related to septic and septic improvements allowing areas that normally wouldn’t be developable to be developed.”
Wilson urged the commissioners to wait for the county’s comprehensive planning process to make any substantive zoning changes.
“You do that as a community,” he said.
Kathy Phillips, executive director of Assateague Coastal Trust, shared similar concerns. She said the area zoned E-1 was low-lying and prone to flooding. Local waterways are also in poor health.
“They need the protection of wooded, low density land use,” she said.
Like Wilson she said septic technology was getting better and better and that septic tiering would not prevent development in the South Point area forever.
“There will be a time when septic use will not be a constraint,” she said.
Phillips also pointed out that while much of the E-1 region in question was impacted by critical area regulations, Worcester County “consistently” granted exemptions to critical area requirements.
Phillips said that rather than rezoning E-1 to R-1 just because R-1 was the most appropriate existing zoning category, the county could be a leader on the Lower Shore and create a whole new zoning designation.
“Why can’t you look forward?” she said.
Phillips reminded the commissioners that the planning commission’s meetings on the proposed sectional rezoning, as well as Tuesday’s public hearing, all took place during the average person’s workday.
“These are the only opportunities for the public to be involved,” she said, adding that if the rezoning was considered later, such as during the comprehensive planning process, there would be more chances for citizens to comment.
A resident of the Route 611/South Point area agreed and said she’d only been aware of the proposed rezoning because of an email from Assateague Coastal Trust.
Frank Piorko, executive director of the Maryland Coastal Bays Program, told the commissioners the county’s hazard mitigation plan stated that one of its biggest concerns was coastal flooding, something that already impacts the South Point area.
“Growth should be directed away from these areas,” Piorko said.
Lower Shore Land Trust Executive Director Kate Patton also opposed the rezoning. She said the change could make the county’s conservation easement process more expensive and could have tax implications.
“Perhaps we could take a step back…,” she said. “A little more research could be done.”
Berlin resident Sandi Smith told the commissioners she traveled down Route 611 daily.
“The carnage of wildlife is absurd,” she said.
Smith said she opposed the proposed rezoning because it would increase density and could bring more development to the area.
“More density just means more damage,” she said.
Porfin Drive resident Rick Savage also spoke against the rezoning. He said the E-1 classification had protected the area, which still has some large tracts of open land, from becoming overdeveloped.
“If you want to fill South Point up with houses this is the way to do it,” he said.
Bunting asked how much land would be switched from E-1 to R-1 if the rezoning was approved. Tudor said the area was about 2,600 acres but that roughly half of it was already developed. He said 70.5 percent of the land was in the critical area.
As soon as the public hearing was closed, Commissioner Bud Church, who represents the South Point area, made a motion to not proceed with the sectional rezoning.
“I think it’s the first time in 48 years as a professional Realtor that I’ve agreed with Dave Wilson 100 percent, that I’ve agreed with Kathy Phillips 100 percent and I’ve agreed with Coastal Bays 100 percent,” Church said. “I don’t think that’s ever happened before.”
Church said property owners in the South Point area had purchased E-1 lots with the understand that they had estate zoning. He said it was wrong for the county to come in and rezone such a vast amount of land.
“I say that as a Realtor,” he said.
He said there hadn’t been enough input from the citizens and that the county should wait until the next comprehensive plan was done to consider a sectional rezoning.
“This is not the right time,” he said.
Commissioner Joe Mitrecic seconded the motion.
“I agree with Mr. Church today,” he said. “I think this is probably the wrong time to do this, or the wrong way to do this, but I will caution everyone who spoke today that this will be part of the comprehensive plan and you need to be heard at that time.”
Commissioner Chip Bertino asked Tudor whether he thought the proposed rezoning was inconsistent with the county’s hazard mitigation plan and current comprehensive plan. Tudor said he did not believe it was because he didn’t think the rezoning would lead to more development in the South Point area.
“There’s an assumption that this is going to lead to significantly more development,” he said, adding that he’d looked at the history of South Point and didn’t believe that would be the case. “The last major subdivision in South Point was over 14 years ago.”
Commissioner Ted Elder said he was surprised that there was so much opposition to the proposed changed because he thought it would mean more protection for the neighborhood. He said the E-1 allowed chicken houses, for example, while R-1 did not.
Bunting said he had been chairman of the planning commission in 2009 when it had recommended eliminating the E-1 district entirely.
“I felt strongly then that it should be done,” he said. “At the same time I respect Commissioner Church and his thoughts for his district.”
Bunting, citing his previous stance on the issue, was the only commissioner who didn’t vote to support Church’s motion.