By Megan Poinski

The torrid rhetoric about PlanMaryland cooled down on Monday into a discussion about who really understands the controversial state land-use plan, and what it’s doing before the public at this point anyway.

Because of the impassioned arguments against enacting the plan, the Senate Committee on Education, Health and Environmental Affairs held a briefing on the issue on Monday morning. The Maryland Department of Planning had intended to submit the plan to Gov. Martin O’Malley this month so it could be codified as an executive order.

The hearing room was packed with people mostly opposed to the plan, many of whom had attended a rally decrying it right before the hearing on Lawyers Mall.

Pipkin PlanMaryland rally

Senate Minority Leader E.J. Pipkin waves a copy of PlanMaryland at a rally against the document.

For the most part, senators on the committee understood why the opponents might be frustrated with the plan, which Planning Secretary Richard Hall said is basically the state coordinating all of its smart growth programs in a single document. It does not create any new laws or policies, Hall said. A plan could not do that without passing the legislature first.

“The loudest voices opposed to the plan are worried that the plan is doing something it does not, and it can’t,” Hall said.

Seen as usurping local zoning

The way the document is written, many senators acknowledged, It could sound like the state may be able to usurp planning and zoning power from local jurisdictions – exactly the concerns voiced by residents from all corners of rural Maryland on Monday.

“I think this has become the straw man. It’s just scared people,” said Sen. Paul Pinsky, D – Prince George’s County. “But as a matter of fact, these rights and responsibility have always been there. As well as the authority.”

Pinsky said there are just two questions before the Senate: Was PlanMaryland developed in a transparent atmosphere, and is the plan needed at all?

State planning officials say that PlanMaryland is the next step in smart growth legislation passed in 1974.  In the nearly four decades since then, Maryland has passed several different laws regarding smart growth and preservation. However, all of these laws are for different programs in different departments.

Hall used a football analogy to explain why PlanMaryland is needed. The Baltimore Ravens know how to play football, but they never go out on the field without a plan. The state of Maryland has been on the field without a game plan for decades, he said.

“If you actually knit together, theoretically, a number of state programs, you would have a plan,” Hall said. “The governor felt it was necessary to knit together a plan.”

The plan is not yet final, and the Department of Planning is still working to perfect it. Two drafts have already been put out, with each garnering comments and suggestions for improvement from the statewide community.

Andrew Ratner, director of communications for the Maryland Department of Planning, said that the comments from Monday’s hearing – as well as comments electronically submitted by people statewide – will be used to put together a final draft, which will be submitted to the governor before the end of the month.

State takes the lead

Real estate attorney Jon Laria, chairman of the Sustainable Growth Commission, has been involved with PlanMaryland since the O’Malley administration started working on it. His commission, which grew out of a task force established in 2007, is housed in the Department of Planning as a statewide forum for discussing land use and planning. The commission supports PlanMaryland with some tweaks, and he reiterated that the plan does nothing new in terms of rules and regulations.

“To me, PlanMaryland is not such a big deal with what it achieves,” Laria said. “What it signals is the state is going to take the lead on this process.”

However, PlanMaryland has riled up people from across the state who fear that it could put their property rights in jeopardy. According to the plan, the Smart Growth Subcabinet – made up of several top-level state officials – will have final approval of different planning recommendations.

Advocates of the plan – and many senators – said this is nothing new, and doesn’t mean that the state can limit development. As it is now, the state submits comments on local developments, but cannot stop anything.

Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of environmental advocacy group 1,000 Friends of Maryland, said that the plan is not a power grab by the administration. In fact, she said, the law doesn’t give the Planning secretary any power to enforce the state plan.

“I often joke that Secretary Hall has less power than a librarian. A librarian can fine you for a late book,” Schmidt-Perkins said.

PlanMaryland rally signs

People hold up signs protesting PlanMaryland.

Public relations failure

In 1997, the General Assembly passed laws to establish priority funding areas, which set geographic priorities for government funds to be spent on planning. Sen. Ronald Young, D- Frederick and Washington counties, was then deputy secretary of planning, and worked to get that legislation passed. He said it was a lot of work, and took a lot of talking to people statewide to let them know what the legislation would mean. While the terminology in the law may sound daunting, Young said that he worked hard to make sure that all stakeholders knew exactly what the state was doing.

He asked all county, municipal and state officials at the hearing to raise their hands if anyone had come directly to them to talk about PlanMaryland. Only four hands went up.

Young called the whole issue a “PR failure.” Because nobody from the administration explained exactly what PlanMaryland meant, he said it isn’t surprising that so many people fear the implications in the way the document is written. Even though the Department of Planning has had several public meetings about the plan, the message obviously did not get through to the people who needed to get it.

“My question is, ‘Why the heck did you do this?’” Young said. “All it’s done is create a huge controversy that I think has diverted from the real issue.”

The real issues, he said – things like dealing with keeping the Chesapeake Bay clean, ensuring less runoff pollution, and preserving the natural beauty of Maryland for future generations – are the types of things that PlanMaryland mentions in no real detail. However, other hearings and legislation will deal with them.

Sen. Roy Dyson, D-Calvert, Charles and St. Mary’s counties, recommended that Hall write the committee an official letter to state what kind of leverage the state has in infrastructure in local communities.

Opponents not against smart growth

The vast majority of people who filled every seat and part of the aisles in the hearing room on Monday were opposed to the plan. Senate Minority Leader E.J. Pipkin, who has led the opposition, said that he is not opposed to a smart growth plan for the state.

While state officials maintain PlanMaryland doesn’t make any big changes, Pipkin said the number of people and organizations opposed to it calls that statement into question. They include the Maryland Association of Counties, the Farm Bureau, the Realtors Association, two-thirds of the counties and the homebuilders association.

Pipkin said a lot has changed since the enacting legislation passed in 1974, and PlanMaryland needs more scrutiny.

“It should come in the front door through the legislature,” he said.

While opponents at past forums have charged the Department of Planning with trying to steal local authority, most of the opponents toned down their rhetoric Monday. They wanted more collaborative consideration of the plan, and hoped that local authorities and the General  Assembly could be brought into the process.

“We are not here to argue or fight, as portrayed by some,” said Frederick County Commissioner Blaine Young, son of the senator on the committee. “We are here to work together.”

Pipkin has promised to propose a bill in the upcoming legislative session that would require legislative approval for PlanMaryland.

Sen. Edward Reilly, R- Anne Arundel County, said that the plan could use more time and consideration.

“There still needs to be a lot of education on this issue,” he said. “We’ve waited 37 years. I don’t know why there’s a rush.”