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July 24, 2012

There's got to be a better way!

Earl 'Rocky' Mackintosh

On July 31 the Frederick County Planning Commission and the Board of County Commissioners will hold a joint public hearing on the 2012 comprehensive plan and zoning review.


This will be the first public meeting of the two groups since the Planning Commission made the unprecedented decision last November to discontinue their participation in the zoning review process.


With two new members of this advisory body appointed by the commissioners last month, one can only hope that a more rational discourse will take place in the hearing room.


However, land-use planning in Frederick County has become a reflection of politics at large here in the U.S: two polarized extreme viewpoints, both sides fervently believing they alone have a flag firmly planted on the moral high ground.


Depending upon whom you ask, the 2010 Comprehensive Plan was either a far-sighted plan designed to preserve Frederick County’s farmland and bucolic way of life, or a heavy-handed land grab by local "like minders" of Gov, Martin O’Malley’s PlanMaryland that essentially strives to wipe out the concept of compensation for development rights.


Despite popular opinion to the contrary, most real estate developers, farmers, real estate professionals, and even local land speculators generally agree with the concept to preserve our agricultural heritage and excellent lifestyle. They merely seek a set of governmental rules and regulations that they can rely upon from one year to the next … and one administration to the next.


The previous Board of County Commissioners (lead by its president Jan Gardner – 2006 to 2010) and its handpicked planning board members took advantage of Maryland's less than favorable respect for property rights' laws when they chose to simply strip away the long held zoning of many landowners in the name of smart growth in what was clearly an incomprehensible plan.


It was unreasonable, at best, to think that there would be serious backlash from the massive number of down zonings that resulted from the plan.


Consider the case of Frederick's most infamous step-child, Lake Linganore, which was the subject of a significant depletion of density in the Gardner board's 2010 comprehensive plan. The end result was that the project was once again thrown into financial ruin after millions of dollars and proffers were invested in planning, infrastructure and property taxes based upon a previously approved larger project of 14,000 homes.


How can the comprehensive land use planning process be structured so that it is consistent and reliable from one administration to the next?


I can remember a time when the county's comprehensive plan was just that – a living, breathing document that – while occasionally tweaked – its message was consistent for decades. Of course, some of those "tweaks" upset different groups along the way, but the plan was the plan … and it was respected, because business, residents and investors could rely on its consistency.


A comprehensive plan is not a mandate for growth. It is a blueprint, a guideline, for accommodating future population growth and commercial development where it is projected to occur or channeled by planning over what is a typically 20-year time span.


When a comprehensive plan is used as a political statement from one administration to the next, the community at large quickly loses trust in the document. Lack of trust breaks down the core of what government is all about; and, before one sees it coming, a comprehensive plan can become the stimulus of deep divide and political polarization.


Like a disease, polarization can infect the heart of a community. Once the infection spreads, it becomes very hard to rebuild the trust and respect in all that a government is responsible for providing its citizens.


It's been nearly 15 years that this political disease has been mutating out of control in the Frederick community. That's about the time that the phrase "if the developers win, you lose" was introduced by then county commissioner candidate John "Lennie" Thompson, who reflected the sentiment of many who were beginning to lose faith in their local leaders.


While that campaign slogan worked well politically for Mr. Thompson, it was probably one of the most significant ingredients that cast out the spirit of compromise to planning in exchange for severe polarization over land use issues.


Once Mr. Thompson was elected, counter groups (such as Defenders of Citizens Rights) were formed by local property rights advocates to challenge the radical land use changes he preached … this divide threatened the reliability of the county's comprehensive planning process.


I must admit I got caught up in the paranoia and took sides with the property rights advocates when it became clear that the sacred land planning process was quickly on its way to becoming a partisan political hot potato. Subsequent commissioner campaigners used this blazing spud as a tool to garner votes.


When the dust settled from each campaign, the new board of five members set out to form pacts of at least three members to push their collective political agenda through partisan appointments to the Planning Commission.


It wasn't long before any consistency and reliability eroded away with each four-year swing of the pendulum.


Our community has become fractured from the speed and weight of what became a swinging steel wrecking ball … from a change every four years in the political philosophies of a majority of just three commissioners.


Think about that … three people.


The fact that dramatic shifts have occurred this often for so many years (three times in the last six years), tells me that trust in county government has deteriorated to an all time low.


While I am a open advocate of many of the efforts of the current commissioners’ administration, especially when it comes to restoring the zoning and property rights to those who were slighted by the 2010 comprehensive plan, it is blatantly clear that our community needs to find a way to bridge the deeply polarized divide between the so-called forces of growth versus no-growth.


While the comprehensive planning process is cast in the stone tablets of Article 66B of the Annotated Code of Maryland, what can be done at the top to restore trust in our local county government?


Over the last 16 months I served as one of 12 appointed members to the Frederick County Charter Writing Board. The experience once again showed me the value of compromise for the good of the whole. This group of individuals all held differing opinions on how to structure a new constitution for Frederick County.


I have written extensively on the MacRo Report Blog expressing my opinion on the benefits of changing our form of government to one with a balance of power and better representation that charter home rule would bring to Frederick County.


Such a move will place an elected county executive as the one individual who is accountable for carrying out policies set by a seven member county council. Such a change will offer Frederick County citizens broader representation than currently afforded the community at large.


The simple majority of three like-minded county commissioners will be replaced with a structure that provides a balance of power in setting policy and carrying it out.


There is no question that the force of the land planning pendulum will be slowed to a more healthy speed, which will aid in regaining trust on our local government once again.


Think about it.


Rocky Mackintosh is the owner of a land and commercial real estate firm based in Frederick. He is also the editor of the MacRo Report Blog.


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