Not-very-smart growth

April 16, 2007

In approving rezoning for a mini-town center in the middle of the Allegany County mountains, Maryland's Court of Special Appeals ruled that county development master plans don't count for much unless county officials enforce them.

That may not be news to citizens across the state who participate in endless meetings and public hearings to shape the future of their communities, only to find their wishes ignored when developers come along.

But relegating master plans to wish lists is a practice that can't be tolerated if Maryland is to have any chance of managing its remaining resources wisely for the long term.

Officials in Allegany County and every other jurisdiction affected should move quickly to give their master plans the force of law so they are worthy of all the work invested.

Terrapin Run, a 4,300-home and shopping center project proposed for 900 mostly wooded acres off Scenic Route 40 near Green Ridge State Forest, is a classic example of development unsuitable for its surroundings.

The property is zoned for agriculture and conservation. It's 30 miles from the nearest middle or high school, and more than 100 miles from major employment centers. Water supplies are inadequate to serve what would become the second-largest community in the county after Cumberland.

In fact, the location is so ill-suited for either a commuter community or a retirement village that it might collapse on simple economics in the unlikely event that it survives a state environmental review.

The county's comprehensive development plan directs such projects to the outskirts of Cumberland or other population centers, where support services would be available. It also specifically urges that the eastern end of the county that Terrapin Run is targeting be preserved for agriculture, forestry and recreational use. But mountain land is cheap, and the county is desperate for any kind of investment, so the Board of Zoning Appeals let the project go forward.

The Court of Special Appeals reversed a Circuit Court decision that held state law required the project to be "consistent" with the development plan. Maryland's highest court may ultimately decide. Whatever happens, though, the lesson to be drawn from this tale is that for development plans to do their job, they must be equipped with teeth.

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