Simple zoning dispute drawing broad attention

Allegany project could be test on reining in suburban sprawl

November 28, 2007|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN REPORTER

Who'd have expected that one of the biggest housing developments proposed in Maryland in years would be in rural, mountainous Allegany County, where the population has been dwindling since the factory economy collapsed 30-some years ago?

But that's just what has happened, since a Columbia-based developer offered to build a 4,300-home community, along with some stores, a riding stable and trails on scenic U.S. 40, hard by Green Ridge State Forest.

And, perhaps even more surprising, it has drawn fierce opposition - from people who say the county failed to follow its own growth plan in approving the process. They've taken the matter to the state's highest court.

Now, as a result, the impoverished but resource-rich Western Maryland county finds itself at the heart of what could be a test case that some say could determine whether suburban sprawl can be reined in.

At issue: Does a county have to follow its own blueprint? The Court of Appeals is scheduled to hear arguments tomorrow.

Though officially pitting the developer against a group of residents opposed to the project, the case has drawn statewide and even national attention. The Maryland Department of Planning, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the American Planning Association have intervened in the residents' behalf, while Allegany and Garrett counties have joined with the developer.

"This is sort of a perfect storm in some ways," said state Planning Secretary Richard E. Hall, explaining why the O'Malley administration weighed in on the case.

The narrow issue before the Court of Appeals is whether Allegany's zoning appeals board erred in deciding that Terrapin Run would be in harmony with the county's comprehensive plan.

Such plans are long-range development blueprints required by state law of all counties and municipalities. Drawn up after extensive review and public comment, they are meant to guide growth and development through zoning laws.

Opponents of the project contend that plans are worthless if not followed and that local officials are too quick to make exceptions when a developer presents an appealing-looking project.

"Are we going to let the selective marketing of properties by real estate professionals and investors determine where growth occurs?" asked William C. Wantz, the lawyer for the project's opponents. "That's the debate at the core of this controversy."

But lawyers for the developer and for the counties maintain that the plans are only guides, not rulebooks. Local officials need flexibility to react to development proposals they deem beneficial that were not envisioned by the plan, they contend.

The case began as a simple zoning dispute, said Robert Paye, a Cumberland lawyer for Terrapin Run, but has since blossomed into a struggle over control of land use between local and state governments.

"This is the kind of development that would have been done and still probably could have been in some of the suburban jurisdictions," Paye said, "but because it's out here in Allegany County, it's a big to-do."

First proposed two years ago, Terrapin Run has sparked a bitter debate in Allegany over growth and the county's future. Because of its size and location, the project also has come to symbolize the antithesis of Smart Growth to environmental and civic groups across the state.

Opponents say it's out of keeping with Allegany's comprehensive plan to put a new community that when built out would be the size of Frostburg - the county's second largest city - amid the forests and pastures of the eastern part of the county.

The developer contends that the project is the epitome of Smart Growth, though, because it proposes densely clustered homes on a cutover wooded tract that the county plan had identified as capable of accommodating development.

The zoning appeals board sided with the developer, approving the project after eight days of public hearings. Opponents filed suit and won a partial victory in Allegany County Circuit Court.

Both sides appealed that ruling to the Court of Special Appeals, the state's second highest court, which ruled that local officials had acted properly. But the court's declaration that comprehensive plans are merely guides, not to be strictly followed, has raised alarms among planners, environmentalist and civic activists.

"If the courts decide that comprehensive plans don't matter, then Maryland will be paved with poorly planned development," said Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of 1000 Friends of Maryland.

Hall said state planners "weren't crazy about" Terrapin Run but elected to intervene because they feared the Court of Special Appeals ruling would undermine the importance of local comprehensive plans in guiding growth.

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