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Master plan delay might cost Carroll


State planning officials are threatening to withhold money that would help pay for parking and another ball field at Eldersburg Elementary School, lights for eight athletic fields at Freedom Park in Sykesville and two soccer fields at Roberts Mill Park in Taneytown because the commissioners have failed to update Carroll County's master plan.

Without an updated master plan, Carroll could lose more than $1 million in state funds this fiscal year through Program Open Space, or POS, which is funded by real estate transfer taxes. The county shares its POS money with Carroll's eight municipalities.

Under state regulations, local jurisdictions cannot be awarded money for certain park and recreation projects unless the projects "conform to a comprehensive plan the local governing body approves."

"To help assure that POS funding will not be jeopardized, we urge the county to adopt its master plan sufficiently in advance of June 30, 2000," state officials wrote in a letter to Carroll County.

The letter, dated April 17 and signed by Mary J. Abrams, chief of comprehensive planning, and H. Grant Dehart, who was director of Program Open Space but has since left the post, was received by the county June 12.

"If we don't have our plan in order, it's understandable that they'd hold up the money," said Julia Walsh Gouge, president of the three-member Board of County Commissioners. "They wouldn't have any way of knowing whether the projects we're proposing are in line with our master plan."

It was not clear last week whether the state would withhold POS funding. Abrams could not be reached for comment and POS officials were on vacation Friday.

Throughout the state, Program Open Space pumps more than $60 million a year into the acquisition and maintenance of parks, greenways, bike trails and wetlands. In Carroll, the money has been used to improve Sandymount and Cape Horn parks.

"POS money is important to us, of course, but what difference does it make if we use an old master plan or the new one?" asked Commissioner Robin Bartlett Frazier. "We are still trying to get the master plan adopted. It is still among our top priorities."

Though the state's suggested deadline for adoption of a master plan has passed, the county planning commission has yet to act on the commissioners' latest version of the document. It is expected to approve the plan Sept. 19 and send it to the commissioners for review. There is no deadline for the commissioners to act on the plan. They can adopt it, reject it or send it back to the planning commission for further review, but they cannot amend it.

Work on the master plan began in December 1995 after two decades of rapid residential growth, particularly in Finksburg and the Freedom area.

Four teams of about 35 people each, including professional planners and volunteers, spent more than 2,100 hours analyzing the information that formed the basis of the document.

The planning panel approved the plan in June 1998 and sent it to the previous board of commissioners for consideration in July of that year. The commissioners shelved the plan before the November 1998 election, leaving it for the current board to review. The master plan will establish the first new land-use guidelines in Carroll since 1964.

During their eight-month review of the plan, the current commissioners weakened provisions for directing growth to the county's eight towns and Finksburg, and eliminated all of the planning policies drafted during two years of discussions. They suggested that the strategies and policies outlined in the plan be placed in a separate document, as a book of recommendations they could refer to, but would not have to adopt.

In April, the planning commission received the commissioners' latest version of the plan. The planning panel refused to embrace many of the commissioners' proposals, deciding that the plan should closely resemble the 125-page document originally drafted. The five-member panel is expected to present the board with a detailed plan that includes strategies and policies the commissioners removed.

State officials have said the best master plans incorporate community comments, provide clear directions for growth and relate to local zoning laws.

"It is my hope the commissioners will approve the master plan as quickly as possible," said planning commission member Melvin E. Baile Jr. "The prospect of losing out on POS money is scary."

Commissioner Donald I. Dell could not be reached for comment.

Sun staff writer Mary Gail Hare contributed to this article.

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