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State, local planners address challenges, fears

By MEGHAN RUSSELLStaff writer

While concerns that the state may be usurping local planning powers still linger, land use officials from the state, Calvert and St. Mary’s counties addressed the controversial PlanMaryland initiative and their hopes that it eventually can work, at a forum Tuesday night.

The League of Women Voters of Calvert and St. Mary’s counties hosted the community information forum at Asbury-Solomons Retirement Community, as PlanMaryland — the state’s first comprehensive sustainable growth and land use policy — has sparked debate in all of Maryland’s 23 counties over the last several months. In December, Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) accepted the plan and this spring the Maryland General Assembly passed legislation limiting the state’s ability to create mandates or financial requirements through the plan.

On Tuesday, Maryland Department of Planning’s director of planning services, Rich Josephson, Calvert County Director of Planning and Zoning Chuck Johnston and St. Mary’s County Director of Land Use and Growth Management Phillip Shire addressed the issues surrounding PlanMaryland and then answered questions from the audience, which had been submitted on note cards.

Josephson said Maryland has had the authority to create a comprehensive land use plan for about 50 years but finally got around to designing one, primarily because new growth into the state was starting to get out of hand. Since 1997, 75 percent of development has occurred outside county-designated priority funding areas (PFAs), leading to more infrastructure, more congestion and more impacts on the environment and residents’ quality of life, he said.

Over the next 25 years another million residents are expected to be added, along with 500,000 new homes and 600,000 new jobs, he continued. But under PlanMaryland, he expects to preserve at least 300,000 acres of farmland and forest and save $1 billion in new infrastructure and schools, by focusing 90 percent of new development in PFAs.

“We provide a policy. We say this is what the state would like the local jurisdictions to do,” Josephson said, stressing that the state cannot force any jurisdictions to comply. “We can do that in a way that’s collaborative, that’s cooperative, with those local jurisdictions.”

Addressing concerns that the state is using the plan to override local planning and zoning, Josephson said the state will feel the effects more.

“A lot of it will fall on the shoulders of state agencies,” like the Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, the Department of the Environment and the Department of Housing and Community Development, he said. “The hope is to get all these different agencies to use the plan to align their programs and strategies ... and look at larger goals of helping communities grow and helping communities preserve.”

Those agencies may have to modify existing programs to help jurisdictions get the resources they need to meet their planning goals, he said.

County responsibilities include identifying targeted growth areas, established communities, large lot development areas, rural resource areas and farm and forest areas. “They’ll say, ‘This is where we want to grow, this is where we don’t want to grow, this is where we want to focus our efforts to preserve,’” Josephson said.

Johnston said he believes Calvert is in a good position to marry the requirements of PlanMaryland with its pre-existing land use policies. Since 1983, the county has diverted growth into designated town centers to avoid strip development along Route 4. Since ’88, the county’s Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance has guided whether a subdivision can be approved based on existing infrastructure and schools, and transferrable development rights have helped landowners preserve about 30,000 acres despite the population increasing from 20,000 residents in 1970 to almost 90,000 today.

Calvert already has designated various categories of zoning districts, including industrial, town center, residential, rural community and farm and forest.

“We’re going to attempt to take our existing land use designations and marry them up,” Johnston said. “We will do our best to work with the state to make this happen.”

The legislature’s attempts at limiting the state’s authority under the plan has helped counties “feel a little more comfortable with it,” he added.

“I was very critical of PlanMaryland when I first read the early drafts,” Shire said. But like Johnston, he has since come to realize it’s “not really drastically different from county plans we have had in the past.”

Targeted growth areas in St. Mary’s include Lexington Park, as well as places in California, Hollywood, Piney Point and the Charlotte Hall/Mechanicsville area, he said.

The timing is his greatest concern, as it “couldn’t have come at a worse time as far as our budgets are all concerned.” Counties must also implement a costly federally mandated Chesapeake Bay cleanup plan and adhere to the recently passed Sustainable Growth and Agricultural Preservation Act, or “septic bill,” which limits the number of developments that can occur where there is septic, directing growth into areas where water and sewer already exist.

“It’s boggling. It’s almost inconceivable,” Shire said, but Josephson said the state will create a “Rosetta Stone” to help local planners understand how the various land use programs intertwine.

Josephson also said Calvert and St. Mary’s “are two of the better counties” as far as their current progress for managing development.

While Josephson maintains the entire plan is voluntary, both Shire and Johnston said they believe in time, if they do not adhere to it, their counties will be ineligible for state aid.

“It all has to do with allocation of available resources,” Shire said. “I have to accept that as part of the game, if we want to be eligible for funding, we have to more or less prove ourselves.”

The event was co-sponsored by the St. Mary’s College of Maryland Center for the Study of Democracy, Concerned Black Women of Calvert County and American Association of University Women Patuxent River Branch.

For more information on PlanMaryland, go to www.Plan.Maryland.gov.

mrussell@somdnews.com