The Planning and Zoning Commission discussed at its Wednesday, Aug. 29, meeting the recent decision made by county commissioners to take the Freedom Community Comprehensive Plan back from the commission after 10 months of work.
Ex-officio commission member Stephen Wantz, county commissioner for District 1, took responsibility for being the third vote in a 3-1-1 decision made at last Thursday’s Board of County Commissioners meeting — with Commissioner Dennis Frazier, R-District 3, voting against it and Commissioner Richard Weaver, R-District 2, abstaining.
“I would like to say something,” Wantz said to P&Z Commission members. “It’s not the elephant in the room; it’s probably a herd of them right now. So I’ll give you my take — and let’s be clear, I’ll give you my take because it was me.
“I don’t know how many times that we acknowledged and we thanked, that we talked about all the progress and all the work that all of you put into this plan,” Wantz said. “We did it time and time again and I don't want it to go unnoticed because I think it’s very important to say that.”
But the county commissioner said, as he said at the BOCC meeting on Aug, 23, that his choice to support taking back the Freedom Plan came down to fairness.
The current iteration of the plan has been in the hands of the Planning and Zoning Commission since the BOCC remanded it in October 2017. Since then, the commission has made changes requested by the BOCC — like editing the mission statement, expanding future land use definitions, changes to the proposed Planned Unit Development, possible future changes to sewer and water maps, and properties that will have changing land use designations.
Wantz said he wanted to thank the commission for all that work.
After completing those tasks, P&Z held a public hearing this summer and decided to order a traffic study for the areas around certain large properties after residents expressed concerns. It would be the final action before P&Z made final decisions on any area density changes.
But it was the traffic study that was the last straw for the Board of Commissioners — especially as the clock continued ticking away toward the date when Rothschild and Howard will step down from their positions representing the Freedom Area.
Wantz said it has always been a priority to get the plan finished before the two commissioners left office in December.
“I was all over the map right up to the time that this decision was made,” Wantz said. “I think and truly believe that it was not fair for Commissioner Rothschild and Commissioner Howard, because let’s be clear: The traffic study would have put it into a place where it would not have been able to be accomplished by this current Board of Commissioners.”
Commission members said that they appreciated Wantz taking responsibility for the Freedom Plan’s abrupt change of hands, but recognized it was the two departing commissioners who spearheaded the move.
And that they agreed with Planning and Zoning Commission Chair Richard Soisson’s comments last week that it was “a slap in the face,” even though he was not present Wednesday evening to defend it.
“I support him in that way because that’s how I felt,” said commission member Jeff Wothers. “I don’t know if that’s helpful, but I know everyone around the table [has] given up a lot to be here at this time, and we take this responsibility seriously.”
Wothers said he was disappointed the commission essentially wasted 50 to 100 hours of their time, individually, and that the reason the Board of Commissioners cited for taking the plan back — that it was of highest priority to complete the plan before Howard and Rothschild leave office — is one that he hadn’t heard before.
“I do not remember that highest priority ever being articulated in the letter from Nov. 16, 2017,” he said. “This highest priority isn’t even mentioned — so the noting that retroactively the highest priority is speed is difficult to process.”
It is especially difficult for him to process, Wothers said, when it is a complete about-face from the decision the Board of County Commissioners made to hold off on approving the county’s master plan eight years ago.
“The approach taken at this time by the BOCC is absolutely, in my view, inconsistent with the approach taken for the [2014 Carroll] County Master Plan when the BOCC asked us to hold off until the new board came in,” he said, “the notion being the new board would have to implement and enforce it.”
Wothers’ point is one Frazier made at Thursday’s Board of County Commissioners meeting, to which Howard and Rothschild said the situation was not comparable.
Rothschild also said this week that taking back the plan was not politicizing the process — a statement exactly opposite of that which he said in 2015 when legislation giving the Board of County Commissioners that power was passed by the Maryland General Assembly.
In May 2015, Howard and Rothschild both expressed skepticism with the legislation in interviews with the Times, citing concerns it may render a lot of hard work by the planning commission moot and politicize the process. At the time, Rothschild said while it would be appropriate for the commissioners to make minor changes to these plans, the bill “went too far.”
“Now it opens up the chance all the public input and work put in by the planning commission is rejected,” Rothschild said then. “By going too far, [the bill] will risk further politicizing the plan by opening it up to a second round of review. … Too much latitude renders the planning commission irrelevant.”
At the Planning and Zoning meeting Wednesday, commission member Dan Hoff said that’s exactly what was happening.
“We are talking about politics being interjected here,” Hoff said. “To me this is all about politics. This is about the fact that Commissioner Howard and Commissioner Rothschild are leaving office and there will be two new commissioners here. ... They desperately want to be the ones to have the decision related to this plan.
“I’m glad Soisson said what he said. It was a slap in the face to this commission,” said Hoff. “And I find it kind of amusing that at that meeting you kept on asking Lynda [Eisenberg, acting director of the Planning Department], questions. Soisson was in the room. Not once did anyone ask Soisson to comment. And to add insult to injury, instead of waiting a week so that the light of day could be exposed on this subject … you all took the vote then.”
Others expressed their disappointment as well.
Commission member Alec Yeo asked Wantz what the urgency was to make a decision the day the issue was brought up without giving any time to discuss it with Planning and Zoning. He said if the Board of County Commissioners has just asked for the current iteration of the plan, P&Z could have given it to them without the traffic study.
Even a heads-up would have been helpful, said Yeo.
“People have reached out to me with more trivial things,” he said.
“I'm proud of what we’ve done,” Yeo said, “and [what] this commission’s done and [what] staff has done for this group. And I think the product that you have asked us for is a better product a more complete plan, and it involves lots of public hours as well as staff hours, and hopefully you’ll be able to consider that.
“But we wouldn’t want this to go down in the books as a truncated process for the two members of the board, if that’s what ends up going down,” he said. “Twenty years from now, that’s the sentence that will be spoken if the plan was stopped short of what its true intent could have been.”
Wantz said, however it may seem, that their work for the past 10 months will not have been in vain though. The Board of County Commissioners wants the better product the commission produced.
“Trust me,” he said. “I’ll tell you I will do as much as possible to throw it in the face of the other four [commissioners] to show that everything you’ve done until this point gets through.”
The P&Z Commission voted unanimously to seek legal counsel because its members were uncertain the decision the Board of County Commissioners made was legal. After taking a recess, they found that the counsel recused herself due to a conflict of interest. The commission then voted unanimously to seek alternate outside legal counsel.
The Board of County Commissioners meets again at 10 a.m. Thursday, Aug. 30, when it will discuss developments to the Freedom Plan. Rothschild told the Times Wednesday that the new commissioner-edited draft of the plan should be ready for the meeting.