A case worth taking

June 07, 2007

The O'Malley administration has joined the chorus calling upon Maryland's highest court to review a decision by the Court of Special Appeals that would render all but meaningless the extensive work local governments and citizens contribute to shaping comprehensive development plans.

The state's request to file a supporting motion on behalf of the citizens group appealing the ruling, which was announced last week by state Planning Secretary Richard E. Hall, reflected both short-term and long-term concerns horrifying enough to keep an anti-sprawl advocate up all night.

Within weeks of the Court of Special Appeals decision this spring to approve zoning for a cluster of residential and commercial development in a purportedly protected section of the Allegany County mountains, developers from across the state eyeing similarly inappropriate, rural tracts started clamoring, "Me too, me too," according to Secretary Hall.

So, as bad as it would be to simply let stand approval of Terrapin Run, a proposed 4,300-home and shopping center project so utterly unsuited for its 900-acre mostly wooded surroundings that it may not even be economically viable, the precedent set would be far worse.

"The Maryland Court of Special Appeals has threatened the link between the comprehensive plan and zoning by reversing a Circuit Court decision that required the project to be consistent with the comprehensive plan," Mr. Hall said. "The Court of Special Appeals also defined the plan itself as a mere guide. This decision ... is the antithesis of Smart Growth."

The Court of Appeals makes its own decisions about what cases to hear, but the state's intervention should point up what is obvious: The impact of the Terrapin Run decision is too far-reaching to let a three-judge panel of the Court of Special Appeals - two of the three came briefly out of retirement to hear the case - have the last word.

The General Assembly has been working for years to put more teeth into local comprehensive planning decisions. Governor O'Malley and his team, facing extraordinary pressure for growth in a state already grappling with congested roads, failing water and sewage systems, a dangerous loss of green space and an ever more polluted Chesapeake Bay, are working on ways to tighten the planning function even further.

Maryland's high court should meet its responsibility to give the Terrapin Run case the high-profile review it deserves. Even upholding the lower court decision would be better than simply taking a pass. Such an adverse ruling just might give corrective legislation greater momentum as the reality of unchecked development looms.

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