Gazing into the unknown but imminent future that is 2018, one key story to follow is actually a story that was supposed to wrap up years ago: the Freedom Area comprehensive plan.
The freedom plan is a long-term guide for growth in South Carroll, providing an outline of future land uses, infrastructure and roads that will ultimately guide future zoning changes and public works projects.
State law requires that the plan be updated every 10 years, but the plan currently in place was adopted in 2001.
It now appears likely that close to another year will pass before a new Freedom plan will be adopted by the county.
The Carroll County Planning and Zoning Commission spent two years working on an update to the plan, culminating in an approved draft that was sent to the Carroll County Board of Commissioners in July. The commissioners then had the authority to make any changes they wished to the plan before voting to “adopt” it, the official term for the final vote of approval that would begin the implementation of the plan.
“That will be done on our Jan. 3 meeting, I guarantee it,” said planning commission Chairman Richard Soisson. “I don’t want to spend a lot more time on that.”
Soisson has asked the county Planning Department to provide two different versions of a new vision statement for the commission to choose from at its Jan. 3 meeting, each informed by different attempts at new language by members of the commission and a small group of freedom area citizens who met with Carroll County Commissioner Richard Rothschild, R-District 4.
The planning commission will then take up the other issues as directed by the Board of County Commissioners, including examining all of the land use designation changes, a process Soisson said could take more or less time depending on everything else the planning commission has to do — not only does the commission deal with rezoning requests from all over the county, there is also a comprehensive rezoning effort underway to update zoning categories for all of Carroll, not just the freedom area.
“With rezoning, that’s where the meat is,” Soisson said. “This is a major rezoning. This hasn’t been done since the ’60s. It’s really going to be a big deal. It’s going to be a lot of work.”
Even assuming the planning commission is able to quickly get through everything the board of county commissioners asked it to look at in the freedom plan, Soisson said, and even if that were done within a month, the plan does not immediately go back to the county commissioners for adoption.
“The problem is we have to go through the whole process again, he said. “We can’t just say, ‘Here are our changes, this is the plan as we see it now, you guys decide what you want to do. We have to have the 60 days for people to review the plan, and then have a public hearing.”
Just as with the two-year long process that got the Freedom plan update to its current form, the planning commission will have to vote to accept a new draft of the plan, send that draft to state agencies during that 60-day review period Soisson referenced, hold a public hearing, make any changes stemming from input at that public hearing and then finally vote to approve the plan and send it back to the county commissioners, who must then being their own public process.
That’s perhaps a bit longer than the county commissioners would have hoped for. Commissioner Dennis Frazier, R-District 3, said he would like to see the plan return to his board by April, though he acknowledged that would be possible only if “everything moved as smooth as ice.”
The planning commission reserves a voting seat for one county commissioner. Currently that commissioner is Stephen Wantz, R-District 1, but for most of 2017 and during the voting to accept and approve the plan, Frazier held that post. He believes that remanding the plan back to the planning commission was unnecessary, in particular because having been there, he believes all land use designation changes were well justified.
“Believe me, the commission sat for hours and hours and hours and thought out all of this stuff,” Frazier said. “They didn’t just flip a coin. There are logical reasons behind everything that was done.”
But now that the plan has been remanded and the public process must be worked through again, Frazier sees those hours of deliberation as a means of speeding up this second pass at the plan. He suggests the planning commission simply point the Board of County Commissioners to the public record of the planning commission’s previous deliberations.
“The explanation I believe for most of those properties is already in the minutes or on video,” Frazier said. “That could be looked at that way, which would expedite what the commission has to do.”
And that could be key, as Frazier, like Soisson, is well ware of how important the comprehensive rezoning process will be to the county, and how much the planning commission will be asked to contribute: According to County Chief of Planning Lynda Eisenberg, planning staff will begin bringing proposed text amendments for commercial and industrial zoning districts before the planning commission in January.
“I’m just looking forward to having this freedom plan put to bed and having the new zoning text amendments, hopefully by the end of the year,” Frazier said. “I think that will be two really big accomplishments for this board of commissioners.”