This post summarizes the status of various planning and zoning bills that MACo took a position on during the 2020 Regular Session.
Planning and zoning is an integral function of county governments, and an area that spurs a high level of interaction with residents and business owners. In its planning and zoning advocacy, MACo seeks to protect the ability of local governments – those closest to the people and with the most insight into local needs for growth and preservation – to balance community and business interests.
This year, for the first time in since the Civil War, the General Assembly closed session early on March 18, due to precautionary social distancing measures taken to curb the spread of COVID-19. Consequently, many bills did not have hearings or did not move forward due to time constraints to meet the new deadline. For more information on Maryland’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic visit MACo’s COVID-19 Resource Page.
Follow links for more coverage on Conduit Street and MACo’s Legislative Tracking Database.
Solar Energy in Maryland
MACo supported legislation that will allow counties to more easily develop a previously contaminated sites for clean energy projects by waiving fees for the voluntary cleanup program and providing franchise tax exemptions for qualifying projects. Public service companies that are a Public Private Partnership (P3) seeking to establish a clean or renewable energy project sited on rooftops, parking lots, voluntary cleanup program sites, and landfills can qualify for the franchise tax exemption if at least 30% of generated energy is purchased by the public partner. Counties approve of the opportunities this legislation presents for counties to offer incentives to prioritize the utilization of brownfields, grayfields, industrial areas, and appropriate government-owned lands for clean and renewable energy projects. As introduced, the Public Service Commission would also be authorized to evaluate material changes to renewable energy generating stations, but amendments in the Senate removed the authorizing language. The General Assembly passed Renewable Energy Development and Siting (REDS) – Evaluations and Tax and Fee Exemptions and it will be sent to the Governor for his signature.
MACo strongly opposed legislation that sought to unnecessarily change the Public Service Commission (PSC) review procedures for issuing a Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity (CPCN). The legislation proposed to (1) remove current incentives for energy developers seeking a CPCN from the PSC to follow local zoning and land use requirements; (2) require the creation of illogical “one-size-fits-all” setback and buffering requirements for energy projects in the state, regardless of local zoning regulations; and (3) apply vague and unnecessary prohibitions against local governments regarding the withholding or delay of site plan or permit approvals for energy projects.
MACo pointed out that the PSC already has the authority to preempt local zoning and land use requirements regarding the siting of energy generation facilities when it disagrees with the local decision or believes a jurisdiction has acted in bad faith. Eliminating local zoning controls would undermine existing law passed in 2017, and also have significant impacts on long-term land use planning, development, and conservation goals. Committees in the House and Senate heard testimony for Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity – Electric Facilities – Study and Procedures but took no further action on the bill.
Comprehensive Plans – Middle Housing
MACo stood against legislation that would have forced all counties to arbitrarily amend their comprehensive zoning plans in an attempt to address the housing affordability crisis across the state by mandating middle housing zoning in qualifying economic zones. Counties, however, asserted that one narrowly-crafted vision, created with an eye toward a certain metropolitan area and its specific challenges, simply cannot become the skeleton key to resolve housing concerns in neighborhoods of every size and character across the state. This is particularly true since some of the biggest housing affordability shortages are actually in rural jurisdictions where zoning issues are the not driving factor. Additionally, legislation passed in 2018, HB 1045, now requires local governments to include a “housing element” in local comprehensive plans.
The House Committee on Environment and Transportation heard public comments on Land Use – Development – Middle Housing (Modest Home Choices Act of 2020), and adopted several amendments that changed the requirements of the bill. As passed by the House, local jurisdictions would only be required to address middle housing in the comprehensive plans and estimate the need for middle housing for ten years of population changes. The Senate did not have a hearing on the bill and it did not advance.
MACo supported legislation that created a model definition for “alcohol production” and “agricultural alcohol production” to help local jurisdictions address agricultural trends driven by consumer demands. The bill provides best practice guidance and authorizes local governments to adopt the definitions into their local zoning laws, which would offer much needed clarity to agricultural alcohol producers seeking to expand and diversify their operations, run viable, profitable local businesses, and maintain Maryland’s thriving local farming industry.
MACo supported legislation that would allow counties and the Maryland Department of Agriculture to take stronger actions to curb bamboo growth in the state by allowing counties to issue fines or seek reimbursement for removal when bamboo is not properly maintained or found to encroach on adjacent property or rights-of-way. Unfortunately, Regulation of Invasive Plants – Bamboo – Prohibitions received an unfavorable report from the Senate Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs Committee and did not advance.
MACo proposed amendments to legislation that would establish a Land Use and Vehicle Miles Traveled Workgroup that would be tasked with developing a State strategy that identifies state and local land use policies, business incentives, transportation policies, investments, and programs in an effort to reduce vehicle miles traveled. Counties recognized the importance and value the recommendations a workgroup could produce for local governments, but raised concerns that the workgroup would lack local representatives. MACo offered an amendment to add six members representing Maryland’s counties and municipalities to the workgroup. The House Environment and Transportation heard testimony for Land Use and Vehicle Miles Traveled Workgroup but took no further action.