Worcester residents split over `visioning'

Advocates, critics of development at odds over plan

January 28, 2000|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

BERLIN -- Officials in this farming and resort county thought they ought to do some modern planning for the first time.

The result was a nasty squabble in Worcester County that has pitted environmentalists against farmers, and longtime landowners against newcomers.

To chart the Eastern Shore county's future, officials hired Anton C. "Tony" Nelesson, a consultant based in Princeton, N.J. His task is to take his workshops, slides and questionnaires to Worcester communities large and small in search of a consensus on development.

Call it a cross between Smart Growth and forecasting. The idea is to enlist as many citizens as possible in a series of "visioning" seminars and come up with a guideline for long-range planning, a vague blueprint for growth during the next 20 years. The tough decisions, the nitty-gritty of zoning and land use, come later.

At least that's the way it's supposed to work.

In a county known in recent years for pell-mell growth and a laissez-faire approach to zoning, Nelesson has caused or stepped into -- depending on whom you ask -- a brouhaha.

The angry reactions have dragged out his $100,000 public-opinion outreach effort, Worcester 2000, for nearly a year, and Nelesson isn't sure why.

"This survey is something we've done all over the United States as a way to begin to understand what people want for their community," Nelesson says. "I still can't figure out what all the anger is about."

After starting his study last spring, Nelesson was ready to begin his public presentations in November. But a day before the first scheduled seminar, the county commissioners canceled the meeting in response to complaints ranging from farmers fearing restrictions on their development rights to minorities who said their interests weren't being addressed.

"The county is pretty much split right down the middle with folks who want to control and modify development, and those who are property-rights zealots who don't want any controls," says Edward J. Ellis, a county planning commission member who sits on the steering committee. "It's political dynamite anytime you talk about land controls anywhere on the Eastern Shore. Some people are determined to politicize this."

Open space vs. congestion

To many farmers, developers and business people, the process appears rigged, especially because a large part of the process involves showing photographic slides to people who then rate their preferences. Critics say most people are going to rate pictures of open space or the beach at Assateague Island over highway congestion, subdivisions and commercial development.

"We feel that there are predetermined conclusions with that and in the questionnaire," says Bill Pusey Jr., who heads the Worcester Landowners Association, a group of 124 property owners, most of them farmers.

"The farm community doesn't want to be divisive, but we feel very strongly that if you look at the survey, it says people tend to prefer open space [to development]," Pusey says.

A letter from opponents to the Worcester county commissioners, who will make the decisions about survey recommendations, further stirred debate by suggesting that allowing any county resident, including a renter, to have a say in the process was unfair to a property owner who might have "lived in this county for 80 years and owns 4,000 acres."

Critics say that "zoning by democracy" is inherently unfair to landowners, particularly to farmers who count on selling their land to finance their retirement, and to others who want as much flexibility as possible to develop their property.

Carolyn Cummins, a county planning commission member who sits on the Worcester 2000 steering committee, says the letter shows critics' true intentions.

"They don't want people to participate," says Cummins. "They're saying you have to own property to have a stake in the county. Next thing, they'll be saying we need to pay a poll tax to vote."

Plan for U.S. 50

Along with the debate over long-range planning, there are deep divisions about a defunct plan for controlling commercial development along U.S. 50 between Berlin and West Ocean City. The proposal was meant to ensure that the development of 300 to 400 properties with highway frontage does not clog roads to Ocean City, the tourist destination that provides as much as 70 percent of Worcester County's revenue. A divided board of commissioners rejected the plan last month.

Developers and property owners fume that the corridor plan included unreasonable restrictions on architectural design, signs, parking, lighting and access to U.S. 50.

"There's real concern that this is a rapid effort to restrict development," said attorney Mark S. Cropper, who represents 18 land- owners whose properties have increased in value since construction of a Wal-Mart store outside Berlin last year.

"There are some on the other side of this debate who want to put up a gate at the Worcester-Wicomico county line," Cropper says.

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