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

State says plan will save money, help environment

By Nicole Fuller, The Baltimore Sun

9:09 PM EDT, October 27, 2011

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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.

Pipkin, who led Thursday's strategy session on how to give rural leaders a say over the plan, added that the attorney general's opinion leaves "a significant amount of legal doubt" about whether the governor can implement PlanMaryland without legislative approval.

He said the plan — along with other recent policy changes and pending initiatives such as the recently approved toll increases on state roadways, a plan to ban septic systems and the governor's plan to ramp up the timeline on stricter pollution regulations for the Chesapeake Bay — amounts to a "war on rural Maryland."

"It will focus all the infrastructure and job growth on only the urban parts of the state," said Pipkin. "Where are the jobs going to come from for my constituents and their kids and grandkids? The governor's making it so expensive to live in rural areas that he's going to drive them into the urban areas. But not everyone in Maryland wants to live in Baltimore City."

Meanwhile, the Carroll County Board of Commissioners plans to host a forum Monday seeking to debunk some of PlanMaryland's assertions in the areas of climate change, wastewater treatment and the environment.

The forum, which is being financed in part by the county, seeks to offer a different perspective, said Rothschild, who organized it.

"They clearly have the ability to coerce us," said Rothschild, who voted to authorize the county to spend $10,000 on the forum. "The state's saying, 'I'll cut off your allowance.' The illusion of self-autonomy is just that — an illusion."

Rothschild was elected during a major shake-up of Carroll County's government, as voters overwhelmingly rejected a board of commissioners' plan to rezone about 4,500 acres of undeveloped land to create office parks.

Rothschild's critics have lashed out against the forum. They dismiss his opposition to PlanMaryland as an obsession with conspiracy theories and complain that taxpayer dollars should not be spent to finance such an event.

One of the panelists scheduled to speak at the forum, identified as "Honorable Lord Christopher Monckton" in a flier advertising the event, has proved especially controversial. According to the British newspaper The Guardian, the British House of Lords issued Monckton, who was a science policy adviser to former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, a letter demanding that he stop falsely claiming to have been a member of the house.

Neil Ridgely, a retired Carroll government employee who worked on sustainability issues, calls Rothschild's ideas "kooky" and criticized the commissioners for spending county funds on speakers like Monckton. He said an initiative such as PlanMaryland would add a level of checks and balances to the system in places like Carroll.

"They're not out to usurp planning authority from the counties," said Ridgely. "Some people are trying to paint that dark, onerous picture."

nicole.fuller@baltsun.com

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