Provisions on growth weakened in plan

Commission dilutes historic site policies

March 15, 2000|By Brenda J. Buote | Brenda J. Buote,SUN STAFF

After an eight-month review of its new master plan for managing Carroll County's growth, the county commissioners weakened provisions yesterday for directing growth to the county's eight towns and Finksburg, and eliminated all of the planning policies drafted during two years of discussions.

The commissioners' latest revision of the plan -- which would set the first new development guidelines since 1964 -- also ruled out a ban on new billboards and weakened programs for protecting the county's historic sites. A new version of the 125-page document will go back to the county Planning and Zoning Commission.

When the planning panel completes its review, the document will be returned to the commissioners, who can formally adopt or reject the master plan but cannot make further changes.

"I'm glad we've completed our review," said County Commission President Julia Walsh Gouge. "I think the process has been good."

The process has been long: Work on the master plan began in December 1995, after two decades of rapid residential development, especially in the county's southern-most strip.

Four teams of about 35 people each, including professional planners and volunteer residents, spent more than 2,100 hours analyzing the information that formed the basis of the document, which the planning panel submitted to the commissioners in July 1998. Four months later, the commissioners deferred all action until a new board was elected.

During years of meetings and formal hearings, residents often expressed strong opposition to the continuation of what they regarded as unsightly or poorly planned development. But by yesterday's morning session, the audience had dwindled to two people.

"They've gutted the master plan and reduced it to a master list," said Neil Ridgely, a Finksburg resident who helped draft land-use recommendations for the plan. "Removing all the strategies takes all the teeth out of the plan."

At earlier stages of their review, the commissioners eliminated design standards for commercial and residential development and weakened strategies for protecting the county's historic sites.

"My biggest concern about historic preservation is getting into private property," said Commissioner Donald I. Dell. "That stuff creeps in as time goes on and before you know it, property owners are being told what they can and cannot do."

The county had a historic preservation planner for many years. But in 1998, Dell and former commissioner Richard T. Yates rejected a $26,400 grant from the Maryland Historical Trust that would have helped pay for the post. Their decision was not made public for two months.

"It sounds like history repeating itself," said Ridgely. "They've removed the public from the master plan process."

In an earlier session, the commissioners spent 20 minutes debating the choice of the word to best describe how the master plan should influence future growth. After consulting a dictionary, the board agreed the plan should "facilitate" development in designated growth areas, rather than "direct" or "encourage" it.

The commissioners also cut all planning strategies and policies out of the plan. Those items will be included in a separate document, as a book of recommendations the commissioners may refer to but do not have to adopt.

"The commissioners should set policies and strategies -- it's an administrative function," said Dell. "They should not be included in the master plan."

State officials and political analysts said the best master plans, such as those adopted by Baltimore and Montgomery counties, embrace community comments and offer detailed directions for future growth.

"It is clear that the plans that work the best are the ones that involve citizens and take their input to heart," said John W. Frece, the governor's spokesman for Smart Growth.

Added Donald F. Norris, professor of policy sciences at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County: "A master plan should include the overall goals and vision a community has for itself, and the methods and strategies needed to implement those goals and visions. Otherwise you don't have a road map. You need good directions to get where you want to go.

"There needs to be clear relationship between the [master] plan and zoning ordinances, otherwise the comprehensive plan turns out to be relatively meaningless," he said.

The commissioners decided last week to begin a comprehensive rezoning of the county, independent of the master plan. The rezoning could take three months. Property owners who wish to have their land rezoned for commercial or industrial development would have to appear before the planning commission.

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