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Freedom Plan process marches on, but not without detractors

Long overdue and not without its detractors, the Freedom Plan process is marching forward, the next guidepost on its path toward eventual adoption being an open house community meeting Thursday, May 25 at the South Carroll Senior and Community Center.

The Planning Commission has been working for about a year on an update to the plan, which lays out a map for future development in the South Carroll area and was last revised in 2001. State guidelines dictate the plan be updated every 10 years, but the Freedom Plan has not been updated in 15.

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"We tried doing it a couple of years ago but then had to put it on hold while we redid the county master plan," said Matt Helminiak, chairman of the Planning Commission and a South Carroll resident.

From a high-altitude view, writing a new plan is a three-step process, as Phil Hager, director of land use planning and development for Carroll County government, recently told the Times. The Planning Commission must first accept a draft of the plan and, after public comment, may approve this draft. Adoption of the plan is the final step.

The plan was accepted by the Planning Commission in April, which opened a 60-day public comment period. After Thursday's open house, there will be held two public hearings — one on June 8 and the last on June 20 — after which the Planning Commission can either modify the plan and/or approve it. Then it would be sent to the Board of County Commissioners. The county commissioners could then modify the plan, reject it — sending it back to the Planning Commission — or adopt it, making it the new official plan.

The June 8 public hearing will be held from 6 to 9 p.m. in the Liberty High School auditorium, 5855 Bartholow Road, Eldersburg. The June 20 public hearing will be held at 9 a.m. in the Reagan Room of the Carroll County Office Building, 225 North Center St., Westminster. Doors open at 8:30 a.m. and the public record for written comments will close at the start of the hearing, while the oral comment period will be closed at the end of the hearing; speakers will have three minutes each.

The accepted draft of the Freedom Plan and associated future land use maps can be found online at www.freedomareaplan.org.

For those who still have questions about this Freedom Plan, Thursday's open house should be the first stop, according to Helminiak, as county staff will be on hand specifically to answer questions. The public hearings, he said, are not meant to be explanatory.

"The public hearing is just comment — it's not Q and A — so if someone in the audience has a question, [the Planning Commission members] can't answer," Helminiak said. "If you have a question, this is the chance. It is a smaller setting so you can have one-on-one time with different staffers and get answers."

One confusing aspect of the planning process that Helminiak said had the commission members themselves asking a lot of questions initially is the notion of future land use, which is related to, but not the same as, zoning.

"Usually zoning follows the future land use map at some point, but there is a difference between current zoning — it's more emphasis on the future," he said. "Future land use is what the vision is for what something will be, or can be one day."

Helminiak noted that there are future land use designations in the original 1977 plan for the Freedom area that have yet to be converted into zoning changes.

But there are those who have been critical of the Freedom Plan, the nature of some of the proposed changes and particularly the amount of input allowed from the community.

Del. Susan Krebs, R-District 5, is a Freedom area resident and argues that the upcoming open house, and previous meetings, are not enough. She says the Planning Commission should have incorporated more direct input from the people who live in the area. She said when the Freedom Plan was last adopted, in 2001, the process was launched in the late 1990s by sending fliers out to everyone in the district informing them of the process and inviting them to get involved.

"They also appointed a community advisory group," Krebs said. "They went to the Freedom area and they engaged the community. They picked representatives to be on this council to advise the Planning Commission."

Helminiak said the creation of such an advisory group had been recommended to the commission, but was easier said than done.

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"Where it gets challenging is suppose we do have a committee of citizens, who should be on it? A builder and a couple of homeowner associations? A resident or two? Some business owners?" he said. "When you ask people that kind of question, you never get the same kind of answer."

But the lack of community engagement along the lines of the 2001 plan is a concern Krebs also shares with Wayne Schuster.

Schuster, another Freedom area resident, was also a member of the Planning Commission between 2002 and 2010, during which the previous attempt to updated the Carroll County Master Plan, known as "Pathways," failed. He believed the Freedom Plan process has repeated the mistakes made during Pathways.

"There was minimum visioning with the public throughout the process. Rather, the county asked landowners what land use they wanted," Schuster wrote in an email. "By the time I became aware of the plan in progress, I felt that the plan was fairly 'far along,' and that an opportunity to engage the public throughout the plan process had been lost."

Krebs also believes that the meetings of the Planning Commission, often held in Westminster during the day, have not been particularly accessible to the people who live in the Freedom area the plan will affect. She noted that even the June 8 public hearing, which was to be the final public hearing on the matter until the second hearing was added on Friday, is the same day as Liberty High School's graduation, which will create scheduling conflicts for many people in the area.

Helminiak noted that the Planning Commission meetings are open to the public and recorded, available online through the Carroll County Government Meetings Portal.

"Anybody at any point can write us. We are completely open and transparent in our meetings; we will accept comment at any time from anybody," he said. "We do all this in the open."

Helminiak also noted there have been changes made to the Freedom Plan during the drafting process based on public comment, such as changing the future land use designations of some schools from commercial or industrial to residential, and removing plans to extend Conan Doyle Way and other routes in Eldersburg.

"There has been some significant changes from the first draft of the future land use map based on public comment," Helminiak said.

For Krebs and others, this still isn't enough. She believes many of the future land use designations included in the plan could lead to negative unintended consequences in the future, that many of the requested changes have not been fully justified and that the plan is simply too complicated for the community to grasp in the meetings that have been held.

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"People have been reacting to a plan placed in front of them rather than helping build the plan," she said. "I am not anti-development at all — if people were engaged like they were 15 years ago, we would come up with a reasonable plan."

410-857-3317

Freedom Plan meetings

•11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 to 7 p.m. Thursday, May 25: Open house meeting with county staff on the Freedom Plan at the South Carroll Senior and Community Center, 5928 Mineral Hill Road, Eldersburg.

•6 to 9 p.m. Thursday, June 8: Public hearing at the Liberty High School auditorium, 5855 Bartholow Road, Eldersburg.

•8:30 to 9 a.m., Tuesday, June 20: Oral comments in last public hearing in the Reagan Room of the Carroll County Office Building, 225 North Center St., Westminster. Last call for written comment is 9 a.m.



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