By Megan Poinski
This is the second of four articles on PlanMaryland, the proposed state planning guidelines, that have stirred passionate opposition from many local officials.
To listen to the Department of Planning talk about PlanMaryland, the long-term development plan being drafted for the state, it does not represent a major policy shift.
“With PlanMaryland, we’re just trying to carry out what the whole state has said it wanted,” said Andrew Ratner, director of communications for the Maryland Department of Planning. Ratner said that the plan is built off of the 12 visions for economic growth, resource protection and planning policy that were drafted by a task force named by Gov. Martin O’Malley and codified by the General Assembly in 2009. The plan is nothing but a framework that syncs what departments are doing in the vein of smart growth, requiring no additional legislation to be implemented.
However, opponents to the plan feel otherwise.
“This represents a dramatic policy shift,” said Senate Minority Leader E.J. Pipkin, who represents mostly rural Caroline, Cecil, Kent and Queen Anne’s counties. “It targets all infrastructure growth, and urbanizes the suburban parts of the state.”
Who’s in charge?
Right now, all planning authority rests with local authorities. Counties and municipalities have power to make municipal and preservation plans, work with landowners, and change zoning designations. The Maryland Department of Planning can comment on local plans, but cannot change local jurisdictions’ decisions.
PlanMaryland designates five “special area designations,” which basically identify how land is to be used. These include priority preservation for agriculture, ecological areas, water resource areas, historic and cultural areas, and areas that would be impacted by climate change. Local jurisdictions would assess different areas, and make recommendations for designations. Those would be looked at by the Department of Planning, and the Smart Growth Subcabinet – a collection of cabinet-level appointees – would confirm these designations.
Counties, organizations, and rural citizens see this as the state taking over in planning. Instead of rural areas being able to make all of their own planning decisions themselves, the state would be inserting itself as a kind of overseer, opponents claim.
“We believe that it is appropriate for all land use and zoning decisions to be made at the local level, where there are local elected politicians that the people who are affected can fire,” said Carroll County Commissioner Richard Rothschild. “The plan places that in the hands of bureaucrats.”
PlanMaryland couldn’t take away local rights if it wanted to, Ratner said, and the draft doesn’t do that. The only way for that to happen is through legislation that would have to pass the General Assembly – but none is being proposed to accompany the draft. Ratner said that PlanMaryland adds nothing that the state cannot already do, and is just a massive coordinating document. Unfortunately, he said, most of the debate has been over “who’s got the football,” or who has the utmost planning authority.
Les Knapp, associate director of the Maryland Association of Counties, said that he understands what PlanMaryland might be trying to do, but the language it was written with may not be accomplishing that.
“If that is the case, there should be language in the plan” saying so, Knapp said. “It would provide an extra level of comfort for the cities.”
Fill in the blanks
So far, PlanMaryland is just a draft, already in its second version. Ratner said that regardless of how it is revised in the coming weeks, it will be nowhere close to being a complete and comprehensive plan in the near future.
Knowing that, people are still leery about how incomplete it is. Many of the long-term goals in the document are still blank, as in this goal: “Increase Tree Cover Statewide by xx% by 2030.”
The Maryland Farm Bureau representing farmers is not sure what to make of these long-term goals – which really could be anything. Does the state want a 2% increase in tree cover, or are they looking for 90% more trees? The blanks say nothing.
“It leaves a lot of questions to be answered,” said Kurt Fuchs, assistant director of government relations for the Maryland Farm Bureau.
Ratner responded that these are long-term goals, and there is certainly time to fill in the blanks. Some of the goals have come from studies done elsewhere, and just need to be placed in the report.