By Megan Poinski


Man overlooks Maryland farmland.

Man overlooks Maryland farmland. Photo by eurowestgirl

This is the first of four articles on PlanMaryland, the state planning guidelines, that have stirred passionate opposition from many local officials.

Forty years ago, state officials saw that Maryland was in need of a land use plan. Development was spreading, yet the state’s 10,455 square miles stayed the same.

In 1974, the bill to create a land use plan was sponsored by then-Gov. Marvin Mandel. It gave the Planning Department ultimate authority in determining how land was to be used, according to research done by the Maryland Association of Counties. MACo, county officials, and even the planning secretary at the time opposed the legislation for taking much of the power away from local officials.

In the face of filibusters, the bill was amended, creating the requirement for a statewide land use plan. The new bill also softened what the state would be able to do in terms of land designation and planning.

Land use plan never written

While progress has been made in passing legislation and issuing regulations to help the state meet specific goals, the comprehensive state land use plan was never written. Three years ago, Gov. Martin O’Malley started the process to change that.

“We’ve waited too long already,” states the most recent PlanMaryland draft. “We need greater support and incentives to encourage smart growth and discourage sprawl. Each acre consumed for development never returns to its previous state. The tide of development keeps churning onward, weakening communities at the core and natural resources at the edge.”

The draft plan provides charts, maps and statistics that show the state of development in Maryland. Land use in the state has grown three times as quickly as population, the plan says. A total of 27% of the land in the state has been developed – more than twice the amount that was developed when the PlanMaryland enabling legislation passed. People are using close to twice the amount of land they were in 1973, and the draft plan warns that the state’s population is expected to grow by 1 million by 2035, up 18%.

Need is obvious, planners say

Andrew Ratner, the director of communications at the Maryland Department of Planning, said that after looking at the realities of recent growth and development in the state, it is clear that the plan is needed now. It doesn’t take statistics for people to know that commute times are getting longer, it’s more difficult to send a child on an errand with a bike, and that jobs are getting further away from where people live. PlanMaryland would implement a structure for the next few decades of development to prevent these problems from getting worse, he said.

“These are things that make quality of life better,” Ratner said.

Ratner said the plan is not trying to take back any development that has already happened, nor is it trying to get people to abandon their homes in rural areas and force everyone to move to the cities and suburbs. Instead, it’s a plan for how the state will be further developed in the next several decades.

“We don’t think residential sprawl has necessarily been a good thing for some places. In fact, it’s really changed the character of places,” he said.

The draft plan also clearly states that it was not written with the intent of usurping land use authority currently given to counties and municipalities.

“We intend no inference that the plan is a message from the state that it ‘knows all’ and needs to ‘correct’ local governments,” the plan states. “To the contrary, the document is actually a striking acknowledgement from government – from any level of government – that its various agencies have sometimes worked at cross purposes and haven’t been as effective as they could in trying to fulfill the shared goal of smarter growth.”

Retaining the “power of coercion”

However, officials from county governments and organizations working with counties and rural interests feel differently. The way the plan is written, decision-making authority to designate places is a “collaborative effort,” but the state has the final say.

“Clearly, the state is retaining its power of coercion,” said Richard Rothschild, a Carroll County commissioner who has been adamantly opposed to the plan. “Meanwhile, we’ve lost our local autonomy.”

Les Knapp, associate director of MACo, has been closely following the draft plan’s progress since last summer. The lack of protection for local government authority, he said, is the biggest problem with the draft plan. Knapp said that the draft uses some form of the word “collaboration” about once every three pages, but the extent of that collaboration, if the plan were put in place today, is a mystery.

“It is unclear from this language whether local governments would be true collaborative participants helping to draft future changes of PlanMaryland, or whether they would be relegated to simply commenting on proposals drafted by the state.”

Ratner says that some of the criticism of PlanMaryland is unfair, but it does have an upside.

“Planning issues and long-term development strategies rarely make headlines,” Ratner said. “With the vigorous debate, there are more people paying attention.”

Tomorrow (Tuesday): More on the controversies about the plan.