PlanMaryland, Draft 2: Who Really Sets Growth Areas?

With the release of a revised draft of PlanMaryland, and a proposed 60-day comment period for input on this substantially new document, MACo intends to illuminate issues relevant to the local government community through a series of writings in the weeks ahead.

MACo’s Comments on Plan Maryland (April Draft)
Search for all PlanMaryland content on the Conduit Street blog
PlanMaryland – Original Draft (April 2011)
MDP Progress Report (July 2011)
PlanMaryland- Revised Draft (September 2011)
Maryland Department of Planning’s PlanMaryland website

Today’s topic: Who Really Would Set Growth Areas?

Among the topics that received deepest attention in the first draft of PlanMaryland was the notion of “GrowthPrint” and the underlying concept of setting areas appropriate for growth. Local government officials have historically argued that a public, community-based process of comprehensive planning – with true accountability to the local decision-makers for their actions – was the best model for this determination.

Under current Maryland law, the main vehicle for state/local partnership on growth areas is the Priority Funding Area (or PFA) concept, arising from “Smart Growth” legislation in 1996. Through a lengthy negotiation and a series of compromises, the PFA system essentially allows the State to determine (by statute) certain criteria for PFA selection, the county and municipal governments to designate PFAs within their boundaries, and the State (through the Maryland Department of Planning) to comment on local designations where there may be debate about the qualifications for a certain area being thus named. Ultimately the PFAs – the areas where numerous state programs are to target their resources and attention – are a local creation, based on state guidance.

The first draft of PlanMaryland established the GrowthPrint concept (detailed in this earlier Conduit Street article), creating a starting point based on a series of existing state programs. From that point, the local governments were invited to apply for additional areas to be included within the GrowthPrint designation, but the final designation was a state designation. If the State, presumably the Department of Planning, did not agree with the county’s judgment on the appropriate places for targeted growth in the county, it could simply deny the GrowthPrint designation, with uncertain but potentially significant results in terms of state funding, permit approvals, and the like. In many ways, this decision – who sets growth areas – is the core of the ongoing debate over intrusion into land use decision-making.

When MACo submitted comments on the first draft of PlanMaryland, here is the relevant section, pointedly speaking to the designation process:

The currently proposed place designation process undermines the concept of PFAs and local autonomy. While it is true that the actual PFA statute is not changed by PlanMaryland, vesting approval authority for growth areas essentially renders them meaningless, as the State will have final say over where a local government should target growth in its jurisdiction. The decision of designating places related to growth should remain with the local governments, with State ability to provide feedback and comment. Other place designations should be determined jointly through a collaborative approach between the county and State.

With the newly revised draft of PlanMaryland, the GrowthPrint term is relegated to a much less visible role, but the concept of state approval of local decisions still looms. Chapter 4 of the revised plan speaks to the “Designated Places” process, in general terms as follows:

Designated Places
PlanMaryland establishes five Place categories for growth, revitalization, land preservation and resource conservation, and maintaining public services and quality of life. These categories are:
• Growth and Revitalization Areas;
• Established Community Areas in Priority Funding Areas;
• Future Growth Areas;
• Low Density Development Areas; and
• Rural Resource Areas.

Page 4-1

The Growth and Revitalization Areas are the first major element of the revise draft that take the place of the original vision for GrowthPrint. Here’s a paragraph that summarizes the process for identifying them:

Growth and Revitalization Areas are also intended to build on existing Priority Funding Areas (PFAs), which rely heavily on land use and residential density as defining criteria, by incorporating additional criteria that support the goals of this Plan. These criteria will be considered in light of each jurisdiction’s size, population, rates of growth, employment, economy, infrastructure, and resource constraints, as further discussed in PlanMaryland’s Place and Special Area Designations Element. Sustainable Communities designated under the Sustainable Communities Act of 2010, if nominated by a local jurisdiction, will be automatically recognized as part of the jurisdiction’s Growth and Revitalization Area.


MACo’s read here is that this is essentially the same process as originally proposed. The “Sustainable Communities” areas were the basis for the first set of maps in the first draft of PlanMaryland, and were considered to be included as the GrowthPrint area without any process. Now, here a locality must nominate them, but their approval is guaranteed. In substance, no real change.

Past that, the process is that “Local governments that choose to do so will nominate Growth and Revitalization Areas, which are located within Priority Funding Areas.” (p. 4-3)

There are similar-sounding segments of the new draft that detail the envisioned designations of Established Community and Future Growth Areas, each of which trace back to the same matters – designating places where the land use plan calls for accommodating and supporting growth.

The Designation Process for these areas begins on page 4-10 of the revised draft, and reads in part as follows:

Locations nominated by local governments for Place and Special Area designation will be reviewed by the State according to the criteria in PlanMaryland’s Place and Special Area Designations Element. These criteria, which will be developed with local government input, are not a one-size-fits-all prescription that applies equally in all regions and jurisdictions. Instead, they are intended to apply in each jurisdiction in ways that are commensurate with size, population, economy and expected growth.

p. 4-12

And the bottom line decision is contained here:

Local/State Designations will be confirmed by the Smart Growth Subcabinet in accordance with the process described in Chapter 6. The Maryland Department of Planning will notify each jurisdiction if their nominated areas have received Local/State Designation. The State will also publish updated PlanMaryland Designated Places and Special Areas maps periodically depict the location and boundaries of each Place and Special Area designation. In the case of GrowthPrint, once areas have been formally designated as Growth and Revitalization Areas they would also be added with other areas. already targeted by State programs for growth and revitalization as shown on the GrowthPrint GIS map.

pp. 4-12,13, emphasis added

In the end, the local governments may “nominate,” but they are then beholden to a state decision to “approve.” Under PlanMaryland, even in the revised draft, it remains the state’s appointed officials who make the determination what areas are suitable for growth, while the local elected officials participate only in an advisory and informational capacity.

Michael Sanderson

Executive Director Maryland Association of Counties

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