Fans of a plan

Tonight I made it out to Wicomico High School and said my piece in front of about 90 or so people. I honestly suspect this would be a monumentally long post if I tried to do it as one article, so tonight I’ll talk about the meeting itself and tomorrow I’ll look into what the state wants to accomplish with these listening sessions.

Once they got the issues with showing the PowerPoint presentation corrected (I told you we were guinea pigs), the meeting actually went pretty smoothly and lasted about 2 hours. I can give those after us in line a bit of a heads-up on how the meeting itself goes. We first had some introductory remarks by Jon Laria, who is the Chair of the Task Force on the Future of Growth and Development. This is yet another task force created by the General Assembly in 2006, with some revision in scope occurring last year and the first meeting of the 21-member group occurring earlier this year. They have a report that’s due to be delivered in December so these meetings are a bid to solicit public input on the state’s planning process, since growth is a “critical, defining (and) generational” issue for the state of Maryland.

Laria turned things over to the Maryland Secretary of Planning, Richard Eberhart Hall. He was the one who had the issues with the equipment, but once things got in order the audience used their own remote devices to answer a series of poll questions which were placed on the screen. (I’ll be interested to see if this becomes part of the report or if these results are posted beforehand.) But while the nonperforming projector was being replaced, Hall noted that it was Governor O’Malley’s charge to “instill” sustainable growth for the state, in part by highlighting the best practices through studying which incentives and ordinances were successful in that aim.

There were two slides that Hall showed which I assumed were supposed to have impact, but I picked out something which brought me to think about them further. The first of these two was a graph which showed three categories: population, number of households, and number of jobs for the Eastern Shore. Slowest to grow amongst them was the number of jobs, which I feel is truly unsustainable growth. Undoubtedly there’s a factor of retirees moving here from more urban areas but they should create service jobs at the very least. Having that job number growing the slowest would mean the local economy would stagnate compared to other areas and that definitely needs to be addressed.

The other slide was inserted to show the developed area on the Eastern Shore in 2002 and two projections for 2030: developed areas under current regulations and developed areas with Smart Growth, which supposedly would take up about 1/4 of the acreage. The prediction using current law is an additional 90,000 acres developed, and using my handy-dandy calculator I worked that out to roughly 140 square miles. It sounds like a lot if you look at it as a 14 mile x 10 mile area, but spread out among nine counties it’s not all that much.

Hall also alerted the gathering that the average lot size for a residential home was increasing while the share of growth in designated growth areas was decreasing. He opined that growth should be funneled as much as possible into Priority Funding Areas, areas the state deems to need an economic boost. (Perhaps making the state more business-friendly would help, but that’s a post for another time.) One other item I’m sure 98% of those in the auditorium were unaware of was that Maryland has been by law supposed to have a state development plan in place since the 1970’s but has never undertaken one until now.

The survey itself was conducted by our third scheduled speaker, Vienna Mayor Russ Brinsfield. One thing I found out is that I have some education to do because I was in a small minority on some issues, but the questions were sometimes those which led themselves to a politically correct answer and I ain’t politically correct (just right.) That’s part of my topic for tomorrow, but we got to the public input portion of the program after the survey.

As I expected, a number of speakers came up representing various environmental groups. But out of 17 speakers, they were not the majority. Friends of the Nanticoke, Wicomico Environmental Trust, Assateague Coastal Trust, and Heart of the Chesapeake (part of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation) all had someone say their piece. They spoke about “strong measures to protect an agricultural-based economy”, “green infrastructure”, “enhancing smart growth”, a “lack of will” among local officials to change cluster zoning regulations, and of course eliminating the subsidies for development, just to pick out a few general principles. One speaker not affiliated with these groups even managed to bring up the global warming aspect which I found disappointing because, as everyone should know, the earth’s temperatures have been steady or slightly cooling for the last ten years.

We also had other speakers who weren’t necessarily affiliated with the more radical environmentalists, but wished to preserve the status quo. One quoted Jim Perdue as saying that “sprawl represented the biggest threat to agriculture” in the region, while another stated that “the Eastern Shore doesn’t need to be Long Island”, suggesting that the money which would be used to build another Bay Bridge would better serve the Eastern Shore in creating jobs. Yet another came back to that theme of preserving agriculture, speaking about other states wanting our poultry industry to relocate there. He also talked about Salisbury as a “donut city” with the development on the outside and empty in the middle.

There were also a few elected officials who took to the microphone. Probably the best of them was Wicomico County Councilman John Cannon, who called on the planners to maintain a respect for private property rights and just compensation for transferable development rights, or TDR’s for short. Mayor Brinsfield also echoed the need for TDR’s, saying they have to be part of a planning solution. Sheree Sample-Hughes, who also sits on Wicomico County Council, took issue with the comment about a “lack of will” from County Council, a comment that “(did) not sit well” with her. She pointed out the county had “dissected” the issue and was moving forward with it to the county’s Planning Commission and eventually a public hearing. And Delegate Rudy Cane, who serves on the growth and development task force, felt he had to “stand in defense of the state of Maryland” when it was suggested that this planning may be too much of a “top-down approach”, contending this meeting was among the ways the state was making this a bottom-up process. Above all, the state has an “obligation to protect you.” (I wonder who would make the suggestion that the state was trying to impose its will? By the way, Rudy, I’d rather assume the obligation to protect myself than allow the state to do it for me.)

Two other officials looked at the perspective of costs. Former Worcester County Commissioner Sonny Bloxom decried a lack of staffing for his county as a hindrance and suggested the state possibly assist by assigning planners to individual counties. And a young lady who works for the town of Hurlock in their planning and zoning department gave several examples of their assistance to a particular developer and then asked who would pay and share the cost of placing growth in growth areas, and who pays to subsidize projects? Russ Brinsfield added that “you can’t assume growth pays its own way.”

As you probably figured by now, I did say my piece. I was the thirteenth of 17 speakers so as promised I let a bunch have their say first. The main points I wanted to stress were echoing John Cannon’s concern for private property rights (which drew commentary afterward from Mike Pretl, the speaker accusing the county of a “lack of will” – we generally have some disagreement when he and I meet), the idea of local control over planning rather than the topdown approach (which is what Delegate Cane took offense to), and not forgetting about economic development. I had to mention that the jobs line grew the slowest of all three, and we could not let the local economy stagnate in the quest for perfection in growth. (Hey, no one argued with that one!)

On the whole it’s going to be interesting to see what the task force comes up with, but if you look at the “12 Visions” that the MDP has drafted up, I can see a lot to object to already. That will be the topic on my second part tomorrow evening. I also saw G.A. Harrison there so I suspect Delmarva Dealings may be on this subject too.

Author: Michael

It's me from my laptop computer.