As St. Mary’s updates its comprehensive zoning ordinance, it’s looking to give land owners more leeway on critical area development.
The proposed change would alter the current growth allocation process to allow denser development on nonadjacent properties within the county’s critical area, land that falls within a 1,000-foot boundary of the Chesapeake Bay and its tidal waters. Those boundaries are determined and heavily restricted for development by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
“When the state law was adopted in 2008 … they made some provisions that jurisdictions could take advantage of if they wanted to,” Sue Veith, environmental planner at St. Mary’s County Department of Economic Development, said Monday. “St. Mary’s County has not taken advantage of some of those. One of those provisions is for nonadjacent growth allocation standards.”
Local governments are granted a growth allocation from the state consisting of 5% of that jurisdiction’s resource conservation area lands. Portions of that allocation may be appropriated to developers to change zoning designations on land within the critical area to allow for either more intense or more limited development.
“Right now in the critical area, if you have a growth allocation request … you have to be adjacent to the higher intensity zone,” Veith said. “If you ask for something in the [rural conservation area], it has to be adjacent to either [intensely developed areas] or [limited development areas].
The county is considering, based on some requests from land owners who are looking at properties that would need nonadjacent growth allocation, that we make changes to the provisions.”
In the critical area, land is zoned as rural conservation, intensely developed, or limited development, with varying state regulations meant to conserve the watershed and habitat based on those uses.
On the county’s critical area map, Veith noted several isolated commercial properties in the critical area. Increasing the intensity of uses on land in the critical area frequently requires the developer to acquire growth allocation, and those on isolated properties are “prohibited by the fact that we don’t have the regulations in place now” for them to do so, Veith said at the St. Mary’s County Planning Commission meeting.
Amending the provision would also allow the reoccupancy of a nonconforming commercial property where operations have been abandoned, but whose uses were grandfathered in to the critical area.
“Under the critical area regulations, if you have a use [at a commercial building] that discontinues for over one year, it’s considered to be gone. It’s no longer grandfathered, it’s a lost use,” Veith said.
“Somebody could easily go back in and reoccupy [that building] to continue that type of use, but they’re prohibited from doing so, because there’s no growth allocation allowance. The proposal is going to allow those things to occur.”
“So basically this is a provision, overall, to be able to expand development without [as much] growth allocation?” Joseph VanKirk, planning commission vice chair, asked.
“Not so much expand development, but allow developments and people’s existing investments to be” realized, Veith said.
St. Mary’s County has had 1,686 acres of critical land area in its allocation inventory for 30 years, and has developed on just 10% of that, before last year granting Leonardtown 200 acres of growth allocation.