Groups Denounce Development Decisions: Study Shows Citizen Voices Are Ignored, Growth Plans Disregarded in Favor of Developers

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Smart growth advocates gathered today in Salisbury to decry the haphazard and sometimes undemocratic way development decisions are made throughout Maryland.  Environment Maryland released a report of case studies where citizen input and local voices have been drowned out in favor of developers and local officials making unilateral decisions.  The report, titled “Contrary to Plan: Case Studies of Developments that Conflict with Local Growth Plans,” shows that throughout Maryland growth plans are routinely disregarded to cater to developers.

"These plans are developed with extensive citizen input,” stated Mike Sherling, policy associate at Environment Maryland.  “They are democratic and necessary for the health of our communities, and they are being ignored throughout the state.”

Developments profiled in the report are in Allegany, Cecil, Prince George’s, Howard, Caroline, Dorchester and Wicomico counties. The most well known is the Terrapin Run development in Allegany County, where a developer proposed to build 4,300 homes in a beautiful valley slated for limited development. This report shows that Terrapin Run is not an isolated case. 

The examples in the report include:

  • Cecil County’s water and sewer extension, where officials granted the rights to extend water and sewer service to an area that is zoned rural and is not in the county’s growth corridor.  The local officials then asked the planning commission to change the plan accordingly.
  • Woodlands at Whiton in Wicomico County, where developers are trying to build outside of Wicomico’s designated growth area by going through the Court of Appeals and invoking the Terrapin Run court ruling as a reason to disregard the comprehensive plan.
  • The Tuckahoe Neck development in Caroline County, where the county growth plan was usurped by officials in the Town of Denton.

“When we develop in a haphazard way, without consideration of the community or environment, we’re all affected,” said Erik Fisher, land-use planner with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.  “As a community planner, it is clear to me the benefits that come with citizen involvement and well thought-out growth planning.  Our comprehensive plans express the future we want for our communities.  When they’re ignored, it means we settle for something less.”

“This is and has been happening throughout the state,” said Sherling, “We need the law to be clear that growth plans are meant to be followed.”

The report comes as legislators are on the verge of passing a bill meant to reestablish the role of the comprehensive plan as the decisive blueprint for growth in Maryland.  The legislation reiterates that developments should be consistent with local growth plans. However, it does not provide a timeline for implementing the plan into zoning codes and other regulations, nor does it resolve other problems highlighted by this report, such as the lack of a democratic process for plan revision.

“When local governments listen to developers and not their citizens, we see growth hurting instead of helping our communities,” said Mike Pretl, of the Wicomico Environmental Trust.  “A clear process for implementing, updating, and adhering to the plan should be what all local governments must follow.”

The report makes several policy recommendations to improve the growth process:

  • Clarify current law to ensure that local governments know that comprehensive plans are legal documents, not just guides.
  • Local governments must update zoning to match the comprehensive plan within two years of the plan’s adoption.
  • Create a clear process for revision of the plan that entails extensive public involvement in the process.
  • Variances in zoning or other ordinances should not be allowed for projects that are inconsistent with or contrary to the comprehensive plan.
  • Plans should be developed with regional cooperation.  In cases where there are unresolved conflicts between two comprehensive plans, the Maryland Department of Planning should mediate the dispute.
  • Adequate resources should be provided to local governments to allow for clear and thorough development and implementation of the comprehensive plan.