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As Long as We Remember...

December 31, 2003

Urbana Region Plan Process Revealed Code Shortcomings

Al Duke

While watching the joint meeting of the Frederick County Board of County Commissioners (BoCC) and the Frederick County Planning Commission (FCPC) on Adelphia Channel 19 on the subject of the Urbana Region Plan, I was struck by several observations. (As an FCPC member, I was unable to be present because of a medical condition.)

As was rightly stated at the meeting, a tremendous amount of excellent work was done by the county’s planning staff in support of the FCPC, both in developing the drafts and answering our many questions. Other county staff also presented important and pertinent material to us. We appreciated all their efforts and we were also diligent and hard-working through the open houses, two public hearings, and 13 worksessions.

My file of paper and maps pertaining to this plan must have been two feet thick. The county staff is to be commended for its work-ethic and dedication to bringing this plan to fruition. Now they have to do it all over again for the BoCC. Keep up the great work.

Citizens also worked very hard to present their views. Through the public hearings, emails, letters, and written submissions, they got their points across, no matter whether they favored or opposed the plan, or just had suggestions. They are to be commended for their diligent efforts as citizens participating in the process.

Throughout the planning process, agreement was reached on many issues. For example, Commissioner Mike Cady, the liaison to the FCPC, stressed the need for parks and playing fields. There was quite a bit of discussion on this and we agreed that the need was there. The result was that in this plan, parks are fully planned for at the recommended 20 acres per 1000 population. Many issues received the same attention and agreement. The Urbana Region Plan as a result, is, in my opinion, an excellent plan for the future of that region of the county.

There was only one area of contention that remained at the end of the process. That issue was in treating the future growth limit lines of Urbana. The two views were to extend the growth limits to show the land as remaining agriculture on the Comprehensive Plan Map, or to extend the growth limits and show the land as Low Density Residential (LDR) on the map. Our vote was a 3-3 tie on this issue, and so the former view prevailed.

I was one of those who voted to keep the land use as agriculture. There were several factors involved in that decision which I will enumerate below, but it was interesting to see that, after having been presented with all the same information, we split evenly in our interpretation of the data.

Regarding the farmland on the Tabler Road/Ball Road corridor, all of the farmers who testified stated that the land was difficult to farm and that they supported development in the corridor. It is true that farming in the near vicinity of major residential and employment development is difficult. It is also true that this farmland is not the best in the county for farming.

The employment zone along Interstate 270 and MD Route 355 was a primary element in our discussion. The staff noted in its presentation that development of this corridor is a top priority in this plan.

One of the means we discussed at length to ensure that the employment corridor received priority over new residential development was a development staging plan. County legal staff, however, indicated that such a plan would be unenforceable under current ordinances and regulations and that there was no legal way to stage development of the employment corridor in priority over residential development.

The major limiter of further development in the Urbana Region is the availability of water and sewer capacity. The current lines were developed based on the 1993 Urbana Region Plan. Some over sizing was paid for by the county, but this is considered insufficient for both full employment and full residential development as proposed.

Furthermore, the National Park Service indicated that there would be no more access through the Monocacy Battlefield for lines to serve this region. This would necessitate either going north or south around the battlefield for future service, an expensive proposition.

Water and sewer capacity is made available to developers on a first-come, first-served basis. After the approval of this plan by the BoCC, if LDR is approved on the map, residential developers could quickly apply to establish Planned Unit Developments. This could well take up capacity that would be better used at this time for the employment zone.

While I do believe that the best land use for the farms along Ball Road and Tabler Road is residential development, the development of the employment corridor is of a higher priority, in my mind. Thus, I voted to expand the future growth limits but to keep the land use on the Comprehensive Plan Map as agriculture.

Commissioner John Lovell noted that “the development that occurs when you don’t make a plan is what’s already been planned, so if there is no plan it will be 4-lot subdivisions and 25-acre lots, and that is a plan. But if you want a different plan it has to be thought out and done differently.” This is a very true observation, and if this occurs, it would be unfortunate, but I am still of the opinion that the employment corridor must come first as far as the availability of infrastructure is concerned.

How can we as a planning commission plan better for the future of the county? I see three needs.

First, as Planning Commissioner Fern Hines stated: “We need other tools. We can put the employment corridor first, but we can’t do it with our present tools.” One tool we need to have is an enforceable staging mechanism. True, the Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance and the Water and Sewer Plan can help in the staging process, but as the county continues to develop and the development gets more complex, we need to have a unified staging process that will enable us to plan not only what will go where, but in what priority.

Second, the county staff does an excellent job of planning and providing infrastructure to meet the most current region plan for the various regions of the county. The problem with this philosophy is that when we develop the subsequent region plan, infrastructure is not present to meet future needs. I believe the philosophy needs to change to look at very long term needs for infrastructure. In order to do this, however, a third need becomes apparent.

Thus, in order for the staff to plan adequately for the future, we need to know what the long-term future might be. Calvert County accomplished a study, working with a U. S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) grant, that it used to define its full build-out. Frederick County should do such a study, possibly with the EPA and hopefully with grants, to determine water availability, sewer capacity, school needs, and other infrastructure over the long term. We can then have a better scope of what our full build-out might be in the several planning regions.

No one ever said that all the decisions as a Planning Commission member would be easy, and this one was particularly tough. The process that we went through demonstrated good planning at its best, but it also pointed out some failings that we as a Planning Commission cannot address. I hope the Board of County Commissioners will think about these suggestions, and others that were presented at the joint meeting.

The Urbana Region Plan is a good one. The BoCC will have to sort out the issue we could not agree on and make whatever changes to the plan that they desire. Meanwhile, the Planning Commission is beginning its work on the New Market Region Plan, where some of the issues are equally as sticky. We will need all the help we can get from the county staff, the municipalities, and the citizens to develop a good plan to serve the future of the New Market Region.

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