Commissioner Doug Howard spent a portion of Thursday’s meeting railing against a letter sent by the Planning and Zoning Commission to the Board of County Commissioners concerning the Freedom Area Comprehensive Plan, stating that timeliness was always a priority in completing the plan and that the commissioners acted within their legal authority to take the plan back to finish it.
The commission sent the letter to the board earlier this week. The letter addressed concerns with the process the commissioners used to take the Freedom Plan — a 10-year master plan for development in the unincorporated Freedom area that hasn’t been updated since 2001 — back from P&Z in August before they finished their work.
The letter called the process “a sham” and stated that “the perversion of this process undermines [the Planning and Zoning] Commission’s faith in the Board [of County Commissioners] and, more importantly, undermines the public’s faith in government.”
Howard, the only member of the Board of County Commissioners who did not respond to the Carroll County Times seeking comment on the letter because he was on vacation, asked that a discussion regarding the letter be added to Thursday’s agenda because he wanted to point out issues that he felt were misrepresented
Taking back the Freedom Plan from P&Z is “a right we absolutely have as a government,” said Howard, who represents a majority of the Freedom area.
“Frankly, if we didn’t [take the plan back] we could find ourselves in situations where circumstances change and we are stuck with things that don't make sense,” said Howard, R-District 5. “It was not something beyond the scope of what we can do or have done in the past. It just doesn’t come up that often because we usually get things right the first time, I guess.”
He also said because of the 2015 legislation that gives local governments planning authority, it makes sense “that power should rest with the primary elected body, not an appointed planning commission, which is not directly accountable to a jurisdiction’s citizens.”
On Aug. 23, the commissioners voted 3-1-1 to rescind their November 2017 decision to remand the plan back to P&Z, citing the need to complete the plan before Howard and Commissioner Richard Rothschild’s terms ended in December. Stephen Wantz cast the deciding vote, with Dennis Frazier opposing and Richard Weaver abstaining.
Since then, the county commissioners revised the plan’s vision statement, decided to make the planned traffic study part of the plan’s implementation steps instead of completing it before adopting the plan, and decreased the densities of controversial large properties to address the community’s concerns about growth. The county held a public hearing in South Carroll on Oct. 3 and voted to adopt the updated plan on Oct. 10 — less than two months after taking it back from P&Z.
Piggybacking off of Wantz’s statement to the Times on Oct. 16 regarding the letter, Howard said despite the way the process changed, he was very appreciative of the work P&Z has done in regards to the Freedom Plan.
“The vast majority of what comprised that plan was work from the Planning and Zoning Commission,” he said. “I think we tried to express that. The fact is: We actually used a tremendous amount of work that was produced by that group.”
His problem, though, comes from a dangerous implication in the letter.
“If, however, the implication is that we will take it all or we don't respect the process at all — that is a very dangerous perspective to have,” said Howard. “[The idea] if we don't agree with everything you came up with, that we disregard you as an organization or a body … we have many, many organizations and groups that give us advice and sometimes we have to use our own judgment.”
After Howard shared his comments, Weaver, R-District 2, said he believed now it’s time to move on.
Wantz, R-District 1, agreed, but said he wanted to make it clear he was disheartened by the language used in the letter — especially in the sections mentioning the process was driven by politics and “undermines the public’s faith in government.”
“I don't even know how to address that,” he said, “That to me is absurd.
“I would say that if that's their mindset, then they truly have a communication problem. I think it did just the opposite. We listened to the folks down there, made sure to have discussions with folks who live and work down there — to say something like ‘undermining the public’s faith in government’ to me is very upsetting,” Wantz said.
“I don’t know who came up with this language. I can’t imagine the folks, all of them, could have agreed that that type of language — because if they did, then perhaps they need to rethink how they listen to the public when they’re in their sessions.”
He also gave a piece of advice to the Planning and Zoning Commission: Don’t write a letter when you’re angry.
Frazier, R-District 3, said he wanted to point out he didn’t agree with everything that was said in the letter, but also didn't agree with everything that was said by his colleagues that morning.
“That being said, the Freedom Plan is passed, we are moving forward,” Frazier said. “I think most people in the Freedom area agree with what we’ve done with the Freedom Plan. That’s what the important thing is.”
Planning and Zoning Commission Chair Richard Soisson said Thursday he felt he didn’t have much else to say on the letter and the plan, and he just wants to move on as well.
“Frankly, we could understand why this board wanted to do it, but we were just disappointed in the course that they took, just to put it on the fast track,” he said.
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“We aren't arguing with anything else and, again, we understood they had the right do to it. We were just hoping they would work better with us on the final product in a timely fashion.”