Maryland ’s ‘Smart Growth’ Order Meets Strong Local Dissent

Published December 8, 2011

Nearly 40 years ago, Maryland’s General Assembly passed the Land Use Act of 1974 requiring the state’s Department of Planning to create a strategy for growth of land development. Little happened until 2011, when Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) issued an executive order creating PlanMaryland.

In brief, the plan is to instill a Smart Growth strategy for the entire state by creating zones—such as Resource Protection Zones, Residential Zones, and Commercial Zones—to be managed by government entities. The root goal of PlanMaryland is to bring about 12 visions, according to proponents. Vision Number One is to save the environment.

The plan went into effect in November.

“Sustainability,” a draft copy states, is the highest goal of the program. “A high quality of life is achieved through universal stewardship of the land, water and air resulting in sustainable communities and protection of the environment.”

To some, that’s a considerable power to create by the simple stroke of a pen. But PlanMaryland supporters don’t see it that way.

‘An Executive Plan’

It’s an executive plan,” said Andrew Ratner, director of communications and education for the Maryland Department of Planning, addressing the question of why it comes from an executive order and not a legislative bill. “So it’s really a governor’s plan to guide the state agencies as he sees fit. It has already gone through the legislative process, … and the legislature has actually been the impetus.”

Those who support the plan see it as providing the state multiple kinds of saving: saving money, saving land, and saving government agencies from performing duplicative or conflicting services.

“It will help align state agencies with a Smart Growth program. It will save 300,000 acres of farm and forest land over the next 25 years. It will save more than $29 billion a year in infrastructure costs,” said Ratner in describing the expected benefits of PlanMaryland.

It will do this largely by slowing or stopping construction of new projects, he said.

But that’s a bit rosy, said Jim Simpson, a spokesman for Maryland’s Carroll County.

‘State Control of Everything’

“It’s a sweeping document,” Simpson said. “It gives the state control of everything, even food production. It’s a statewide Smart Growth planning document that attempts to channel development. When PlanMaryland was presented in April, it was largely a surprise to everyone.”

Simpson says April 4, 2011 was the first public presentation of PlanMaryland. The governor’s office and agencies spent more than three years crafting the plan, Simpson said, using the 1974 law as justification for bypassing the General Assembly. Public meetings were held on the matter, he said, but they were poorly advertised, sparsely attended, and heavily “facilitated.”

“They had input from those public meetings, but those things were prearranged using facilitators to get the results they wanted,” Simpson said. “The meetings were way under the radar.”

On top of that, he said, the Carroll County Commissioners were elected in 2010, after PlanMaryland was already in motion. That means at least one local governing authority never got an opportunity to comment.

‘Soviet-Style Central Planning’

That such sweeping reforms could be put in place without the due diligence of legislative vetting is an affront, said Carroll County Commissioner Richard Rothschild.

“We do not view this plan as having legitimacy,” Rothschild said. “The plan disrupts 250 years of precedence where the decisions over land use have been made locally by elected officials, where if you don’t like what [they] do, you can fire [them]. This plan is a top-down, Soviet-style, centralized approach to planning.”

Shortly after learning of the plan in April, Simpson and Rothschild began a campaign to educate other county government officials and the public of its environmental provisions and to question its far-reaching impact on development.

For instance, much of the plan’s program for creating a sustainable environment is based on claims sea levels will rise by 10 feet because of “catastrophic global warming,” Simpson said. But not all buy into that science.

Opposition from Most Counties

“Most of the counties throughout the state have concerns with the plan,” Simpson said, noting 19 of Maryland’s 23 counties responded to Carroll County’s call to sign a letter to the governor requesting a delay in implementation of PlanMaryland. “What happened is the plan went in on Nov. 9 but the governor has not signed it yet. The Maryland Senate sent a letter to the governor asking him to defer signing until they’ve had a hearing.”

However, it’s only a small win, Simpson said, given the political support O’Malley has in the General Assembly. But the county has taken more steps to fight back. They’ve sent another letter to the governor requesting more delay; sent a letter to the state’s attorney general advising PlanMaryland does not uphold the general welfare clause inserted in the 1974 legislation; and proposed the insertion of a Bill of Rights to be circulated for signing among the counties to make it clear land-use planning rightly rests with the local governments.

And if the governor goes forth regardless?

“I think it would be a mistake,” Rothschild said. “He will galvanize all of us against him.”