Rethinking annexation

September 25, 2005

WHO DECIDES where and how a community should grow? In Maryland, counties, cities and towns all have master plans that designate how development should progress. The final say on any planning issue is usually in the hands of elected officials. So when voters aren't happy with decisions, they can eventually make changes at the ballot box. But along the border between towns and counties, the rules are not always so simple. The problem? Annexation - the transfer of territory from county to municipality - can put governments at odds and offer developers a way to sidestep growth controls.

Nowhere is this better illustrated than on the Eastern Shore, where a number of towns are facing dramatic choices.

In Caroline County, the town of Denton, with fewer than 3,000 residents, is debating whether to add 3,000 new homes and triple its population. The town would simply annex and rezone an 853-acre parcel to its west. The county's comprehensive plan does not designate this area for growth. But that wouldn't matter. Once the land becomes part of the town, county zoning rules are no longer the final word.

There are some protections, of course. An annexation can be brought to referendum, and zoning changes face a five-year grace period. But under Maryland law, referendums are held by either the voters of the town or the area to be annexed and never by the county as a whole. That tips the balance of power in favor of the municipality. As long as a majority of those involved in an annexation support it, there's not much a county can do. County ordinances that require adequate public facilities don't apply to incorporated areas. And town leaders might be ill-equipped to analyze the impact of major developments. Unlike counties, small towns don't usually have professional planners on the payroll to advise them.

Denton is not alone. Large-scale developments have been proposed for a veritable royal flush of Eastern Shore towns from Princess Anne to Queenstown, and many depend on annexation. The Maryland Association of Counties is leading the charge to reform Maryland's 30-year-old annexation rules, and a statewide task force studying the matter is expected to issue a report soon. Whatever the group's recommendations, this principle ought to be paramount: Growth decisions should be mutually agreed upon by county and town. When they aren't, rezoning deserves to be put on hold - perhaps for a decade or more - to reduce the incentive for developers to circumvent county master plans.

County governments make their share of planning mistakes, of course. And towns ought to be allowed to grow - concentrating development within municipalities is usually the best way to ensure the least-adverse impact. But county officials - and most important, the residents they represent - deserve a bigger say in annexation decisions. After all, the effects of a few thousand homes on roads, schools, utilities, the environment and the overall quality of life will be felt far beyond their own freshly seeded backyards.

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