Maryland's second-highest court gave its go-ahead yesterday to a contested 4,300-home development on a scenic stretch of highway in mountainous Allegany County, renewing debate about whether the project represents the best or worst of the state's Smart Growth policy.
The Court of Special Appeals declared that the Allegany Board of Zoning Appeals acted appropriately in approving Terrapin Run, which a Columbia-based developer wants to build on 1,000 partly wooded acres off Scenic Route 40 near Green Ridge State Forest.
The appellate decision, which reversed an Allegany Circuit Court ruling last year, removes a potentially major hurdle to the development. The project still faces questions, though, particularly about the adequacy of water for homes and businesses proposed in a rural area far from public utilities.
Craig Leonard, project manager for PDC Inc., the development firm, called the ruling "welcome news" for a plan that has sparked debate locally and across the state.
"We're very pleased that the court affirmed the decision of the Board of Zoning Appeals," Leonard said. He added, "We've got quite a bit of engineering and a number of approvals that we'll still have to get."
If built as proposed, Terrapin Run, named for a nearby stream, would become Allegany's second-largest community after Cumberland, housing about 10,000 residents. It would also extend the western boundary of suburban-style development more than 100 miles beyond Baltimore and Washington.
The county zoning appeals board had voted 2-1 in favor of Terrapin Run in 2005 after a lengthy public debate, including more than 30 hours of testimony over eight days.
In granting the project a special exception, the board declared that the project is "in harmony with" Allegany's comprehensive development plan, which calls for creating a "sound, balanced and diversified economy" in a county that has struggled with joblessness since several large manufacturing plants closed in the 1980s and '90s.
Opponents - who contend such a large development will spoil the rural, scenic character of eastern Allegany and threaten its natural resources - then went to court. They argued that developments must be consistent with the comprehensive plan, a stricter legal standard than the board applied to this project, which is proposed for an area zoned for agriculture and conservation.
An Allegany Circuit judge found in favor of the opponents last year, ordering the zoning appeals board to reconsider the project under the stricter standard.
But in a 21-page opinion yesterday, the special appeals court said comprehensive plans are not akin to regulations, and the law gives local officials the latitude to deviate from them.
"In our view, nothing within the zoning code or the comprehensive plan itself acts to elevate the plan beyond a mere guide," wrote Judge James R. Eyler.
The appeals court also upheld the zoning appeals board's approval of a small shopping center to serve the homes and a sewage treatment plant.
"That's not good," said Tom Mathews, a member of Citizens for Smart Growth in Allegany County, when informed of the appellate court's ruling. "We'll have to analyze [that] and see what's next."
The project has become a focus for debate about Smart Growth, the state's decade-old policy of encouraging development in and around existing communities. The developer's representatives contend the planned community represents the kind of compact development normally embraced by Smart Growth advocates, but opponents argue such a large project should not be built in a rural, scenic area.
"If there's any example of pure bad planning for generations of bad outcomes, Terrapin Run is it," said Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of 1000 Friends of Maryland, a managed-growth group.
Schmidt-Perkins said the court's ruling highlights frustration felt by many state residents about how easy it is for local officials to change or ignore a community's long-range master development plan, which is reviewed and updated every six years or so after extensive public input.
The development still needs local and state approvals to move ahead. The county has proposed amending its water and sewer plan to include Terrapin Run, but opponents have voiced fears the development could strain relatively scarce ground- and surface water in the region.