Can commissioners handle master plan?


If you think that rezoning power is innocuous, look at what these commissioners have already done.

March 19, 2000|By Mike Burns

IT'S BACK to the `60s for Carroll County. The trio of county commissioners is returning to those thrilling days of yesteryear, when their predecessors were unburdened by such liberal notions as land-use planning.

The commissioners summarily sent the long proposed county Master Plan back to the Planning and Zoning Commission for a complete overhaul. Too many restrictions on their freedom of choice, too many specific goals to be bothered with. Let's keep it the way it was in the past.

Since the Master Plan process began four years ago, this is the first time that the county's commissioners have even made a decision on this plan that is supposed to guide development and land use in Carroll County.

They rejected it, of course, which means a lot of work for the planning commission to revise the now 125-page document and come up with a plan more amenable to the county rulers' taste. The simpler and less detailed, the better, the commissioners said.

The planning commission actually has no choice: The county commissioners cannot amend the panel's proposed Master Plan, but they can repeatedly reject the plan until it is changed to their liking. Without commissioner adoption, the plan remains unenforceable.

As is well known, this is the first comprehensive revision of the Master Plan since the 1960s. More than 100 volunteers and county staff spent nearly two years coming up with plans and ideas -- under a supposed deadline -- to produce the draft document.

Then the planning department polished the proposed plan, which went to the planning commission in early 1998 and to the county commissioners that June. The commissioners shelved the document, arguing that the next board of commissioners to be elected in November should make the decision.

Well over a year later, the new board of commissioners has finally made a decision. In fact, the decision was made in November 1998, when Donald I. Dell and Robin Bartlett Fraser won election after strongly criticizing the proposed Master Plan.

While dawdling on the Master Plan, the commissioners were quick to launch a county-wide rezoning process, independent of any plan guidelines.

That made it clear that the commissioners would not permit plan specifics that would inhibit their legal authority to rezone the county.

If you think that rezoning power is innocuous, look at what these commissioners have already done. They've written owners of more than 1,200 mostly rural acres of property to ask if they want their land rezoned for industry. The proposed, rejected Master Plan recommends only 223 acres for industrial rezoning.

Two years ago, the county economic development commission suggested that some 1,500 acres of open land be rezoned industrial, but the planning commission refused to go along.

While there's no doubt that Carroll needs more industry-zoned land to build its tax base, the planning commission wanted more information on the EDC proposal before making a decision. That information never came. Fast forward to 2000, when the current commissioners are soliciting landowners for industrial rezoning.

The major fault in the commissioners' rejection of the proposed plan was not a lack of public involvement. In fact, they held several meetings on the proposed plan. And public input was apparent in the draft. But the trio just decided to ignore what it didn't want to hear.

By removing all the strategies in the proposed plan, the commissioners have made it a wish list without any of the strong measures to achieve county goals. They want these suggestions in a separate report, which will have no binding authority.

While there's certainly an argument for administrative discretion, leaving every decision up to commissioner whim results in a meaningless plan with no teeth.

No, all development need not be confined to the Community Planning Areas (the eight towns and Finksburg). There can be exceptions, but they should be rare. The Master Plan should explicitly say so.

That's not the way other counties that have dealt with serious growth issues have drafted their master plans. Few of the others have matched the meteoric rise of population experienced in Carroll.

And, as residents of South Carroll continue to point out, roads and other facilities planned for that region more than 20 years ago have never been built.

If they'd been in the binding plan, they would have had a better chance of being realized.

State law requires a master plan from the county. But the state does not require too many specifics. Carroll's county-wide plan has usually tended toward the general.

Individual communities, with their own plans, have a chance to develop for their own needs. But only a couple of them have fully started on that process.

Growth is the overriding issue in Carroll County. The need is for a master plan to guide that growth and control it for the public good. That requires a good road map, not a list of platitudes.

Mike Burns writes editorials for The Sun from Carroll County.

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