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Washington County joins in hiring lobbyist to protect interests

November 01, 2011|By HEATHER KEELS | heather.keels@herald-mail.com

Concerned that a new state planning document will be used to "strong-arm" local governments, the Washington County Board of Commissioners decided Tuesday to join other Western Maryland counties in hiring a lobbyist to protect their interests.

The commissioners also agreed to send a letter asking Gov. Martin O'Malley to delay implementation of the PlanMaryland document until it can be reviewed by the state legislature.

"We want to work with the governor on this document, but we also want to be at the table," Commissioners President Terry Baker said.

Washington County will join Carroll, Allegany, and Frederick counties in pitching in for the lobbyist, Baker said. Garrett County opted not to contribute, he said.

The commissioners were uncertain whether the requested per-county contribution was $3,000 or $5,000, but voted 4-0 to participate at either level.

Commissioner Ruth Anne Callaham was absent because she was attending a conference.

Stephen T. Goodrich, direction of county planning and zoning, told the commissioners that the latest draft of PlanMaryland, made public in mid-September, allayed many of the concerns county planning officials had about the initial draft.

Before the revisions, Goodrich said there was concern about "the interference with local planning authority, no acknowledgment of local uniqueness or specific concerns, and the use of a one-size-fits-all kind of approach."

But the latest draft has a less demanding and more collaborative tone, Goodrich said.

"It speaks often about partnerships with local government, and it often uses the phrase, 'if counties choose to participate,'" he said.

The earlier draft also would have immediately designated growth, conservation and agricultural areas in the state, but the latest draft said such designations would be made later, with county participation, Goodrich said.

However, the draft would still allow the state to refuse state funding to projects that violate the state plan, Goodrich said.

Baker called that aspect of the plan a "strong-arm tactic."

While the county and the state share many of the same land-use planning goals, the commissioners have said they are concerned the state will try to apply standards meant for urban counties to the more rural parts of the state.

For example, in an Aug. 29 letter to Maryland Department of Planning Secretary Richard E. Hall, the commissioners noted that a significant portion of the rural population in Washington County relies on septic systems as the only feasible option and that "to impose stricter standards (on septic systems) statewide could have dramatic negative effects for this segment of our population."

They also wrote that the county is on the brink of adopting a comprehensive urban area rezoning and "imposing newer or stricter requirements for urban areas so soon after such sweeping changes are implemented locally will be disruptive and possibly counter productive."

The four commissioners at Tuesday's meeting all agreed their concerns were strong enough to justify paying for the lobbyist.

"It's not that anyone's against PlanMaryland," Baker said. "It's that we want to make sure it's exactly what it says it is and doesn't infringe on property rights."

They also agreed that their new letter should praise the state for softening its latest draft of the plan, but the focus should be on the need for legislative review.

"I'd like for it to be fully vetted with the transparency of the legislative process," Commissioner Jeffrey A. Cline said.

The Maryland Planning Department is requesting public comment on the new draft through Nov. 9.

The draft is available online at http://plan.maryland.gov/draftPlan/draftPlan.shtml.

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