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Three concerns about state's growth plan

February 27, 2012

It’s somewhat difficult to be critical of PlanMaryland because the top-down, growth-containment plan sounds so plausible on the surface.

To wildly simplify a complex program, PlanMaryland works with local jurisdictions to identify areas targeted for high, medium, low or no growth, both now and in the future. It also protects historic and environmentally sensitive sites. The state will then steer the local governments in the agreed-upon direction, using cash as a rudder.

Roads and schools, sewers and waterlines will be eligible for state funding, only if they fall into areas that have been identified as growth districts. As we have seen, few developers want to pay for the real costs of the growth they create, and few taxpayers want to pay for someone else’s access roads. So in this way, it might be said that the state is able to control growth without, technically, controlling growth.

Many will argue that this is exactly as it should be. Why should taxpayers be responsible for the considerable infrastructure costs associated with developing out in the countryside? Further, why should we encourage development that requires more vehicle miles, more pollution, more energy and the destruction of open spaces? And finally, there might even be times when the state is a more effective agent for good than are our own elected representatives. Historic preservation comes to mind — how many historic gems have we lost because local governments fumbled away the chance to save them?

Indeed, we would concede those points to the state. We would also acknowledge that there is a lot of purposeful misinformation flying around, which has more to do with politics than policy.

But beyond all the smoke and mirrors on both sides, we have three concerns that we believe to be legitimate.

The first stems from the enormous scope and ambition of PlanMaryland itself. The state has been very good about posting information and maps online at plan.maryland.gov. But a sensible person can read through the guidelines and still be left with a sense of confusion over exactly how heavy a hand the state will employ.

Second, we are concerned about what this plan means for landowners in the country, farmers most notably. Almost certainly, their land will be worth less if they are shut out from the possibility of any future development. This comes into play even if a farmer has no intention of subdividing. For seed, fertilizer and capital expenses, the farmer must borrow against the value of his land. There is a very large difference between the value (and borrowing capacity) of land that has growth potential and land that doesn’t.

And last, as they say, the best-laid plans of mice and bureaucrats can often veer off course. Those old enough to remember Maryland’s reforestation law of the early ’90s will recall that the law itself sounded pretty good, but, once passed, it fell to state regulators to flesh out the details — and boy, did they.

We also have concerns about how well these city-centric planners understand the rural lifestyle. PlanMaryland stresses that it is flexible, and to be adapted to each individual jurisdiction. But we’ve heard this before, and it hasn’t always worked out as intended — father-knows-best temptations always seem to be too great to really consider local concerns. And if there is a dispute between the locals and the state, who do you suppose will win?

In short, we believe the state means well, but we have serious concerns about the feasibility of turning an entire state into a planned community.

Our county, more than most others in the state at the moment, needs growth and jobs. It does not need one more roadblock to economic improvement. And it certainly does not need a heavy-handed state program whose unstated goal is to starve us out, leaving the land useful only as a pristine playground for the warehoused masses living in suburban row houses. We do not believe that PlanMaryland is this insidious. But a little more of a guarantee that it’s not would certainly be appreciated.

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