Rural leaders rebel against O'Malley's statewide growth plan

State says plan will save money, help environment

October 27, 2011|By Nicole Fuller, The Baltimore Sun

Bruce Holstein moved to Carroll County eight years ago looking for land to build a house so he could live closer to his grown daughter and her family. He settled on a historic road with no streetlights, flanked by maple and hickory trees, with corn and soybean farms in the distance.

It's a small-town way of life that Holstein wants to preserve, and he sees no bigger threat than a statewide plan to direct development — a plan set to take effect as early as next month.

Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley's effort to target growth near existing development — and to withhold funding from local governments that don't comply — has raised hackles in some corners of Maryland. Some of the most vocal opposition has come from Carroll, where one county commissioner believes the plan is part of a broad scheme orchestrated by the United Nations. In neighboring Frederick County, leaders have called it a communist erosion of democracy.

"They want to put us all in one-bedroom condominiums around a city or town," said Holstein, a retired federal worker from Taylorsville. "They're going to take that land where farms are now and turn it into green zones, and no one can live there. I don't need Martin O'Malley to tell me what to do with my land."

PlanMaryland, which would designate targeted growth areas and help fast-track development near densely settled areas, has been in the works for three years and has been discussed across the state in a series of public meetings. The state believes the plan can save more than $1.5 billion in infrastructure costs annually and help curb sprawl.

But at a Thursday meeting of state and county lawmakers from rural areas, Frederick County Del. Kathy Afzali called for radical action to stop it.

"The only recourse is to have an absolute boycott, just a 'Heck no, we're not going to do it,'" Afzali, a Republican, said at the meeting in Annapolis.

State officials say the plan leaves intact the planning and zoning authority of localities. They also say they've been listening to public comments and have rolled back the start of the plan twice to give local governments time to process it.

"The plan has sort of become conflated into a larger sort of political discourse," said Andrew Ratner, a spokesman for the state Department of Planning. "I think if you were to take the labels off it and just look at the plan … they would say, 'That sounds like a good idea,' but when you tell them who's producing it, then they have a problem with it."

The delays haven't softened criticism in rural communities, where distrust of state planners runs deep.

A group of state lawmakers used the special redistricting session of the General Assembly to attempt to push a measure requiring legislative approval of PlanMaryland. A legal opinion from the state attorney general's office, however, said it's "within the executive powers of the governor" to prioritize projects with discretionary funding.

Many rural politicians say it's a case of big-government interference.

"If you look at countries that are dominated by a dictator or a premier with communism, things are implemented by the executive because they feel, 'We know what's best for you,'" said Blaine R. Young, the Republican president of the Frederick County Board of Commissioners. "We want to work with the governor. We want Baltimore to recognize that Frederick is different. It's not this mentality that one size fits all, and one policy will work for every part of the state."

Carroll Commissioner Richard Rothschild claims that PlanMaryland was drafted in the vein of a U.N. document called Agenda 21 that is "more in line with globalist agendas, and less in line with American values." For example, Rothschild said, the plan relies on the premise that global warming exists, a notion he disputes.

"The way the state wants us to grow is not necessarily the way we want us to grow," said Rothschild, a Republican. "We don't want anything absolutist. We agree generally that it makes more sense to grow around our towns, but we don't want dense developments smothering our towns. PlanMaryland would shift would more of that decision making to state employees, who are not accountable to voters."

Across the state, local politicians set the agenda for development in planning documents about once a decade, and that process has not been without controversy, either.

In Anne Arundel County, for example, the recent rezoning of some of the most rural areas resulted in a months-long council debate, and County Executive John R. Leopold vetoed several parts of the bill that he said didn't adhere to local development guidelines. After zoning was approved to allow intensified development in some rural areas, a group of residents sued the county; the case is pending in Circuit Court.

But PlanMaryland has broadened the debate.

State Sen. E.J. Pipkin, a Republican who represents Caroline, Cecil, Kent and Queen Anne's counties, called PlanMaryland a "job-killer" for rural communities.

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