- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
Maryland Secretary of Planning Rich Hall came under fire this week for comments he made about the passage of the 2012 Charles County Comprehensive Plan. He called it “pitiful.” His opinion shouldn’t have caught anyone by surprise. Earlier this year, we reported what some state agencies thought about the draft update of the plan; one of those agencies was Hall’s Maryland Department of Planning.
MDP officials said that the plan promotes sprawl development and endangers the county’s rural character and some environmentally sensitive areas, mainly the Mattawoman Creek and Zekiah Swamp watersheds. Maryland Department of Natural Resources had much the same things to say. DNR noted that the permitted density in the rural conservation district was too high and the conservation district itself was too small. DNR’s Fisheries Division said that the plan threatens local fish habitat and the fisheries. Maryland Department of the Environment weighed in, too. Its officials said the plan does not adequately address groundwater issues in the county.
Hall’s comments on his personal Facebook page were unprofessional, but it doesn’t change the fact that a lot of planning experts see problems with the county’s plan. These same people have had the advantage of seeing how the state’s nearly two dozen other jurisdictions are handling their comp plan updates. Charles County commissioners’ Vice President Reuben B. Collins II took exception to Hall’s remarks in a letter to the editor this week. Collins said Hall had disparaged the citizens of Charles County.
Why single out one official for his remarks? There has been a lot of criticism directed at the county from people inside and outside its borders. There has been much controversy swirling around the plan’s update here along with the designing of a closely related tier map — which marks conservation areas where major subdivisions are prohibited, where sewer systems must be used and where septic systems may be used — that has put the county under a microscope.
Most would agree with Collins that planning power should remain with the local jurisdictions. Eventually, local officials, in our case the county commissioners, will have to explain their land use decisions. That time will be coming soon with the 2014 election.
What’s ironic is that most of the commissioners have chosen to ignore all sorts of criticism of the plan from the very people they represent, but they take offense at the state weighing in. Hall’s opinion isn’t just so “out there” that it should be ignored. There are, in fact, many local people who share his sentiment. These include many residents who gathered at the onset of the update process and followed it through myriad charettes, meetings and hearings to voice their opinions. Probably about two years’ worth of work was invested in the update to the plan by people who live here and have a stake in the county’s future. Many feel that the time and attention they devoted to the process was wasted.
And that is because the planning commission, in the end, ignored the input it received and moved forward with a plan essentially the same as the 2006 plan, as urged by the Balanced Growth Initiative, a local group that opposes restrictions on development. In addition, the commission accepted without substantive changes a tier map that was drafted by BGI. Planning commission members outright rejected a merged scenario written by the county’s professional planning staff that melded points from two different plans and incorporated much from public comments. The BGI-endorsed plan now heads to the county commissioners’ desk. For that reason, many feel they didn’t get a fair shake.
Collins said earlier this year, before the planning commission had settled on the plan that environmental groups hated and BGI loved, that he didn’t like the merged scenario or the BGI plan. But he didn’t then encourage the commissioner-appointed planning board to find a more common ground, and he has not since urged his colleagues to find some consensus.
The commissioners have an opportunity here to take a better look at the plan and do what its planning commission refused to do, and that is take into account concerns from many different people — not just one group — all with different priorities, regardless of whether they are environmentalists, businesspeople, farmers, developers or average homeowners who have some thoughts on how the county should grow. Everyone has concerns about their property rights and property values. No one group has the market cornered on that front.
No one’s asking for a plan that is something out of an environmental group’s playbook. But the current plan approved by the planning commission was adopted at the urging of BGI, ignoring the input of other citizens, and is accompanied by a tier map that was drafted by BGI. Where’s the compromise in that?