For once, planning boards seem to be listening to citizens

July 14, 2000

For once, planning boards seem to be listening to citizens

Since childhood we've been taught that growth, like God, is good. And developers showing up before planning and zoning boards had correspondingly been offered little more resistance than the Almighty had He requested a setback variance for the pearly gate.

But now, perhaps, an interesting trend may be in its embryonic stage in the Tri-State area.

In the past few weeks, developers of a cell phone tower, a Wal-Mart Supercenter, a truck stop and a major housing development have been beaten into a retreat in the face of local planning boards and the citizenry at large.

Each of these projects is to some degree or another flawed, and in the past they likely would have stirred some degree of protest. But unlike the past, there are indicators that planning boards are more willing to listen to the people's concerns and the projects have either been rejected or the developers have pulled their plans from the table in order to regroup.


In Jefferson County, planners rejected a staggering, 3,300-home development after citizens and local officials successfully argued the county simply didn't have the schools, utilities, roads and emergency-services needed to handle the corresponding population surge.

These might seem like obvious reasons for concerns, but in West Virginia land-use rights have been historically strong and restrictions, to the extent they exist at all, historically weak. Codes that indicated developments could be rejected based on inadequate services were routinely shrugged off, the feeling being that somehow they weren't meant to be taken literally.

This time in a narrow vote the planning commission relied on this restrictive legal language, and while the courts may ultimately decide the project's fate, it sets an interesting precedent.

While hardly of the scale of a major housing development, the truck stop at I-81 south of Williamsport and the cell tower in South County were both seen as affronts to a rural lifestyle. The truck stop is back on the drawing board following a quick but effective organization of people who were about to see one of the perks of country living - light traffic - stalled behind crawling tractor trailers.

Cell phone towers are a perfect symbol of the '90s: Thoughtless trampling of beauty in the name of false status, boorish behavior at restaurants and bad driving. And then retreating behind the "but it could save lives" excuse. Yeah, so could handcuffing everyone in the county to a paramedic. So?

Good riddance.

Of the aforementioned projects, perhaps Wal-Mart's decision to plant a Supercenter on a back road up against quiet Funkstown is the most puzzling. You can keep your traffic counts and highway studies; residents of the area didn't need a degree in civil engineering to know that traffic on Edgewood Drive is already at capacity or beyond.

Even though the City of Hagerstown desperately needs the tax revenue, planning staff gave the project a thumbs down, breaking 20 years of tradition.

Perhaps it's the strong economy that is allowing local governments to be more choosey. Or as growth occurs - slowly in Washington County, rapidly in Jefferson County - people are seeing firsthand that it's not all good: That improperly placed cell towers can be ugly, that improperly placed stores can bring traffic to a standstill.

It's entirely possible this is just a blip, not a trend. But whatever they are, these speed bumps to development can be used to advantage - they offer some breathing room to stop and think and most of all plan.

The Funkstown Wal-Mart in particular should open some eyes. The Supercenter was proposed for 32 acres of open land in the neighborhood of the Hagerstown Commons shopping center. As significant as this is, consider that it is only one small part of 550 acres of open land there that is ripe for commercial development.

Wal-Mart or not, there is bound to be considerable development in the area that will put a tremendous crush on Funkstown, which finds itself in the unfortunate position of being a tiny oasis on a major county camel-train route.

Rejecting growth outright may be a temporary solution, and to some degree it may even be refreshing. But rejection isn't a long-term solution. Planning is. That means traffic solutions that extend beyond a few "no left turn signs." Bypasses and the like aren't cheap. But they are a bargain compared to the routebound gridlock and the frustration of hopelessly tangled sprawl that has occurred in counties to the east that didn't think before they built.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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