Senate Committee Holds Contentious PlanMaryland Briefing

As previously reported on Conduit Street, the adoption of PlanMaryland by Governor Martin O’Malley was placed on hold until after a December 12 briefing on the Plan by the Senate Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs Committee.  The briefing was held in response to concerns raised by Senator EJ Pipkin and other legislators during the 2011 Special Session.  The standing room only briefing was preceded by a rally of PlanMaryland opponents in front of the State Capitol Building.

Two panels of speakers testified at the briefing – one headed by Maryland Secretary of Planning Rich Hall and one headed by Senator Pipkin.

 Supporters Panel

Secretary Hall started the testimony in support of the Plan.  “Maryland is a state that has to grow smarter,” he argued and stated that PlanMaryland was “a gameplan” for Smart Growth and an “effort to coordinate the many existing State programs.”  He also stated the Plan does not take away property rights.

The Secretary explained the public outreach efforts by the Maryland Department of Planning (MDP), including numerous meetings and forums, as well as MDP’s receipt of 1,500 online comments and 300 written responses to the two Plan drafts.  He also claimed that many changes had been made since the first draft based on local government concerns.

Jon Laria, chair of the Maryland Sustainable Growth Commission, noted that it was one of the statutory charges of the Commission to comment on PlanMaryland and discussed the activities of the Commission’s PlanMaryland Workgroup.  He felt the Plan was an important topic and that it was good to see the “furor and brouhaha” of the debate.

1000 Friends of Maryland Executive Director Dru Schmidt-Perkins stated she had a letter signed by 24 organizations in support of PlanMaryland.  She also referenced the findings of the 2006 “Reality Check Plus” exercise, where approximately 850 Marylanders placed lego blocks on a map to show where they wanted future growth to go.  She said the participants shared two commonalities:  (1) “People were really upset about the amount of growth happening in our rural areas”; and (2) “People wanted to grow our existing communities.”

“The message from the citizens is clear, but the direction we are going is not,” she said.  Ms. Schmidt-Perkins stated that many of the State’s budget problems come from poor investment choices regarding growth and infrastructure.  She also argued that PlanMaryland did not constitute a State takeover of land use, noting that “Secretary Hall has less authority than a librarian.”

Prince George’s County Assistant Deputy Chief Administrative Officer Aubrey Thagard testified that PlanMaryland is aligned with and mirrors the growth and land protection vision of County Executive Rushern Baker.  He also argued that the Plan will not usurp local land use and that there has been “misinformed and perhaps divisive assertions” regarding the Plan.  Mr. Thagard cautioned that the State cannot afford to have geographic or urban/rural divisions in the current economic climate.

Dr. Russ Brinsfield, Mayor of Vienna and Executive Director of the Harry R. Hughes Center for Agro-Ecology, commented, “PlanMaryland is just a tool in the toolbox to allow the State to streamline its resources.”  He noted that PlanMaryland, in conjunction with Vienna’s own growth plan, will help Vienna accommodate growth while still retaining its local character.

Sean Davis, representing the Urban Land Institute (ULI), recounted a series of workshops held by ULI on how to get more development in designated growth areas.  “[Workshop panelists] cautiously welcomed PlanMaryland,” he explained, especially the potential of better coordination between State agencies.

Opponents Panel

Senator Pipkin began the testimony for the opponents panel and argued that the Plan should be subject to legislative review.  “PlanMaryland is not the gospel according to Secretary Hall,” he stated, reiterating a prior comment by the Secretary about wanting to avoid the 90-day “rocket docket” of the General Assembly.  The Senator testified that PlanMaryland should be a bill that comes in the “front door” and not be done in the “back room” and listed numerous land use programs and policies that had been enacted by the General Assembly to support his assertion that the Plan should go through the legislative process.  “This is legislation by draft, not bill,” he commented.

Citing the 1974 law that gave rise to PlanMaryland, the Senator referenced  MACo research highlighting the contentiousness of the 1974 debate and how the concerns of the rural counties have carried over into the current debate.  In response to Ms. Schmidt-Perkins comments regarding Reality Check Plus, he noted that the people of the State “are people, not legos.”

Senator Pipkin noted that many stakeholder groups have expressed concerns with PlanMaryland, including MACo, individual counties, the Sustainable Growth Commission, the Maryland Farm Bureau, homebuilders, and the realtors.  He stated that comments on the MDP website were running 4 to 1 in the negative.

The Senator also discussed MACo concerns that were contained in letter submitted by MACo to the Governor.  The letter requested that:  (1) PlanMaryland contain clear protections for local land use autonomy; (2) implementation of the Plan be delayed until the Plan’s “blanks” are filled in; and (3) the Plan should be a collaborative effort.

Carroll County Commissioner Richard Rothschild argued that findings from a recent County forum undermine some of the basic assumptions of PlanMaryland and Smart Growth and that the premises of the Plan are flawed.  “If the science used for PlanMaryland were used to design a rocketship, it would blow up on the launch pad,” he stated.  He also argued that the 1974 legislation shows how PlanMaryland would usurp local land use authority.

Saint Mary’s County Commissioner Cindy Jones discussed her attendance at a MDP-sponsored PlanMaryland forum in southern Maryland and expressed doubt at the number of actual citizens who participated in PlanMaryland events.  “This is not a genuine consensus process,” she stated.

Frederick County Commission President Blaine Young stated that his county has sent written concerns to MDP but has received no invitation from MDP to sit down and discuss them.  He also reiterated that the Plan should be “crystal clear” about not usurping local land use and should be subject to legislative oversight.  “If [PlanMaryland] does nothing, why do it,” he asked.  Commissioner Young also announced the joining of four counties in a rural counties coalition.

Calvert County Commissioner Evan Slaughenhoupt highlighted Calvert County’s preservation of 30,000 acres of farmland and its successful transfer of development rights (TDR) program.  “In short, we know what we are doing,” he commented, “We are doing it locally.”  The Commissioner also stated that economic development should be a more important factor in the Plan, equivalent to the existing GrowthPrint, AgPrint, and GreenPrint components.

Richard Sells, representing a segment of the realtors, testified that PlanMaryland will add an additional level of control and could be disruptive of local comprehensive plans.  He also discussed the concerns regarding the lack of accurate information.

Legislator Questions and Comments

While noting that he did not object to the basic contents of PlanMaryland, Senator Ron Young strongly criticized Secretary Hall for MDP’s handling of the Plan.  “It is a [public relations] debacle and more of an embarrassment to the Governor,” he stated.  He stated the Secretary should have better understood the history of Smart Growth in Maryland and argued that everything in PlanMaryland was discussed as part of the 1997 Smart Growth law that created the Priority Funding Areas (PFAs).  “It’s all a rehash, being presented as something new,” he opined.  The Senator suggested that PlanMaryland should have been an internal policy document for existing programs rather than presented as something new.

He expressed the belief that the State itself has not really implemented 1997 Smart Growth requirements, including funding.  “As much as this has failed, it was the fault of the State,” he said.  The Senator also stated that the reason there has not been a State development plan prior to now is because the State is not in charge of development – local governments are.

Senator Young also criticized Secretary Hall for unnecessarily diverting attention to PlanMaryland at the expense of potentially more significant land use issues.  “I think sadly that the [total maximum daily load] and septic issues are the real controversial issues we need to work out,” he explained,  “We need to work with local governments but not destroy them while we are doing it.”  He also criticized the State for not living up to its own funding commitments but then passing on unfunded mandates to local governments.

Senator Young then directed a somewhat rhetorical question to Secretary Hall:  “Why the heck did you do this?”

Secretary Hall responded that MDP created PlanMaryland because that is what the General Assembly told it to do.  He conceded the Plan could have been an internal document for existing programs but hopes that the Plan will improve communication between State agencies and other stakeholders.

The Senator expressed concern about the perceived lack of outreach by MDP on PlanMaryland.  Ms. Schmidt-Perkins responded that there had been “incredible” outreach.  Senator Young then asked for a show of hands of legislators and local officials in the packed audience who had a reachout from MDP.  Of the officials present, only several responded.

Senator Roy Dyson questioned where Secretary Hall intended to go with PlanMaryland and expressed concern that the State would begin using “leverage” to hold up or or halt a school or other project located outside of a growth area.  He requested Secretary Hall send a letter to the Committee describing what kind of “leverage” the State currently has regarding such projects.

Senator Bill Ferguson questioned Dr. Brinsfield about the economic factors leading to the loss of farmland.  Dr. Brinsfield responded that it is necessary to make infill and redevelopment less costly and thus more attractive to developers.  Mr. Davis responded that it is currently harder to develop inside PFAs as opposed to outside.

Senator Ed Reilly questioned why the Plan was being rushed through and whether more public education was needed.  He also asked whether the Plan could mandate zoning for a county, which Secretary Hall denied.  The Senator also predicted that loss of agricultural land will be reduced through voluntary local action as counties develop their Watershed Implementation Plans.

Senator JB Jennings raised concerns about the Smart Growth Subcabinet having final say in land designation decisions under the Plan.  Secretary Hall responded, “That is a way to read this part of the Plan, Senator.”  The Secretary also stated that part of the Plan may be altered.

Senator Jennings also asked what happens if there is a disagreement between the State and a local government over a land designation decision.  Secretary Hall responded that he doubted there would be many disagreements but that the State will create a process where the local government can formally come before the Subcabinet to air its concerns.

Committee Chair Joan Carter Conway stressed that PlanMaryland and the Subcabinet must act in accordance with existing law.  If they wish to go beyond current law, they must go through the legislature to change the law.

Senator Paul Pinsky said the focus should be on two questions:  (1) Was PlanMaryland developed appropriately and transparently; and (2) was it needed?  Secretary Hall defended the transparency of the PlanMaryland process and called the Plan a “needed tool.”  Mr. Laria added that the Plan is a first step to help the State better coordinate the programs over which it has authority.

Senator Pinsky also stated that he believes the Plan does not change existing authority.  “I think this becomes a strawman…to scare people,” he commented.  He said he views PlanMaryland more as a “philosophy” and if opponents have concerns, they can introduce legislation that will be debated by the General Assembly.

Senator Karen Montgomery questioned how much attention was paid to development at one county’s boundary impacting an adjacent county.  Secretary Hall responded that the Plan will take “30,000 foot view” and can help highlight growth and environmental issues that cut across county boundaries.

Senator Bryan Simonaire expressed frustration that the Committee was debating PlanMaryland when they did not have the most current draft of the Plan available to them.

Senator Jim Rosapepe stated that he understood the process argument but did have some concerns about the substantive assertions made by Commissioner Rothschild that seemed to challenge the State’s entire Smart Growth Position.  The Senator also asked Senator Pipkin if he opposed any statewide development plan.  Senator Pipkin responded that he could support a State plan as long as it was “fair” and not a “top down approach.”

Read coverage in the Baltimore Sun here (site offers limited free access).

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