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  Growing Smarter
Presentation by Worcester County Planning Commission Chairman
Carolyn Cummins to County Commissioners on 9/20/2005

The Planning Commission is proud, actually more like relieved, to present to you our final draft of a new comprehensive plan for Worcester County.  Our purpose today is to talk with you about what we need to do in this planning period that will assist us in growing smarter.  Since we suspect you have not had time to do more than skim our document, we certainly expect to return soon for a work session to answer your questions in more detail.

We would like to begin our presentation by extending our thanks:  To you for your patience while we prepared this plan.  To the officials from our municipalities for working so closely with us.  To the citizens of this County whose comments strengthened this plan more than they will ever know.  To our local media for the excellent press coverage of our comprehensive planning efforts.  And finally to your staff.  You would be surprised at how many departments we have involved in this process and how much information we have been provided.  There isn’t time today to name them all individually.  We only hope you recognize the high quality and extreme dedication of all those who work for Worcester.

In particular we express our appreciation to our “so-called witless scribe” who has taken the ideas of many & yes, sometimes even the crazy ramblings of some and put them together in a well thought out, well coordinated document that will enhance this County’s reputation for being on the cutting edge of progressive planning.  Sandy, thank you for listening well & translating so concisely. Phyllis Wimbrow, thank you for sharing your incredible knowledge of the County and for your uncanny ability to find the right word when we were stumbling over text.
Ed Tudor, thank you for your constant reminder on how things work in the real world.

Commissioners, this proposed comprehensive plan provides a package of policies, priorities and recommendations derived from three major themes we investigated while preparing this document:  what have we been doing right, what has been our shortcomings and what additional land use strategies do we need to institute. 

Let us take a look at the current land use map for what we have been doing well.
1. We have been the poster child for smart growth.  We have concentrated
our growth, leaving the majority of our county for farming and forestry.    
2.   We have protected our major economic engines – tourism and agriculture and yes even the building and real estate market by preserving what is unique about Worcester that attracts people to our community - our rural character with our strong agricultural zoning and our coastal character with our natural resources protection ethic. 
3.   We doubled our population in the 1990’s without destroying the uniqueness of Worcester, distinguishing ourselves from our neighboring counties.  We need to retain these policies if we are going to continue to grow smarter. 

Our shortcomings are disasters in the making:

If the 2004 State of the Bays Report didn’t alert us, if the 2002 critical area law or Total Maximum Daily Loads implementation don’t force us, perhaps Katrina finally convinced the skeptics among us.  We must change certain land use policies!  We must show that we understand how we use our land determines the quality of our water and how our proximity to water determines what land we should be using.   Surge map

Some of our previous land use policies have put our citizens, our infrastructure, our natural resources, our waterways and our economy, all in grave danger.  Nothing says this better than looking at this surge map for category 3 storms.  Our traditional growth had occurred mainly in our historic towns, but since about 1970 we have sited development in our most flood prone areas.  The 1989 Comprehensive Plan, even though well-intentioned with natural resource protections, concentrated development in our most environmentally sensitive lands.  The planning commission recognizes the perils of continuing this policy. 

Other significant shortcomings include: 
1. Our land use consumption per unit increased by one-third in the 1990s. 
2. One of the MD Department of Planning comments was that we have enough development capacity in our current designated growth areas to accommodate 12,000 of the 18,000 new population growth we projected.  Sandy Coyman, Ed Tudor, Phyllis Wimbrow, Rick Wells, Bob Mitchell & I met with 2 MDP staff and reviewed the County parcel by parcel once again.  Essentially we were able to determine that our existing communities only had about 25% of the capacity MDP was attributing to us and that capacity only exists if additional public sewer capacity can be provided.  We have reached build out because of these sewer limitations!   We have forced development into our ag land we revere so much.  

What new things should we be doing if we are going to grow smarter.  We studied a lot of plans and regulations employed by other communities, attended workshops and read countless documents professing a variety of growth techniques.  We took several bus trips around the County.  We talked with a lot of people representing many points of view.  We debated with each other & often asked for additional information of certain subjects.  Ending up with this final draft we pass on to you today.

This proposed final plan seeks to move development to more appropriate locations.  It seeks to make our new communities more viable, more livable and more fun by building to human scale, by promoting the creation of a community not a subdivision, by putting jobs where the people live and by providing recreational opportunities including walking and biking trails.  It seeks infrastructure improvements and mass transit alternatives instead of more and more congested roadways.  It seeks equity in housing choices. 

It seeks low impact development so our impervious surfaces can be reduced and our water quality improved.  It seeks design standards so we can maintain our traditional architecture like the Victorian & Federal homes of Snow Hill & Berlin or the beach cottages of Ocean City, looking like ourselves and not just like every place else.

Yes, our proposed plan seeks or “takes”, depending on your perspective, a lot from our development community but it “gives” a lot, too.  It provides a lot of upzoning by opening up a great deal of more acreage for new development in areas more suitable for growth – (growth criteria) areas with better soil types, better transportation access and away from wetlands, floodplains, forests and buffer requirements.  It establishes criteria for the location of our growth – perhaps our most significant new policy for growing smarter.

You may be tempted to believe the growth criteria came from a discussion of how to protect our natural resources, but it didn’t.  It actually came from interactions with members of the development community who never hesitated to point out the shortcomings of our development process.  We recognized that much of the time they were bemoaning state and federal regulations we cannot change.  But we can move development away from the areas controlled by those regulations or to areas where it is easier to meet those requirements.  It is part of what we need to do if we are going to grow smarter.

There is no shortage of land in the County meeting the environmental constraints of this new growth criteria.  It is “the ability to serve by sewer, mass transit & appropriate scale roadways” that is the more limiting factor.   (draft land use map)   This plan continues its spirit of giving to the development community by locating the designated growth areas in the places where the roadways are the most adequate and public sewer is most likely to be provided.  We have worked closely with Dennis Escher to determine those areas.  Public sewer availability is the limiting factor in our existing growth areas and is the key to achieving the density this plan envisions as well as key to bringing down that amount of land consumed per unit of development.

Part of knowing how to grow smarter is to listen to suggestions made during the 60 day review period. (picture from public hearing)   There was strong support expressed for retaining our strict agricultural zoning, for continuing our natural resource protections and for adopting the new growth criteria.  There was also concern over the lack of affordable housing and dismay over certain development practices.  None of those comments surprised us because they were part of what had driven us to make the land use recommendations we have.  But the public also told us we had projected too much population change, designated too much new area for growth and needed to plan smarter by proactively addressing TMDL implementation and natural resource restoration.

Who knew the public even knew what a TMDL is!  Dare I suggest that Worcester County has a much more sophisticated general public than most jurisdictions?  Perhaps we do!
(current land use map)  Back to those smart land use policies we identified earlier and you can easily recognize how our public has inspired us to grow smart.  All that agricultural land we maintained because of a land use policy suggested by our farming community in the mid 1960s.  Our natural resource protections, again came as a result of citizen efforts in the 1960s to preserve the maritime habitat of Assateague Island, in the late 1970s & 80s to protect the forest habitat of Nassawango and in the late 1990s to restore the aquatic habitat of our once forgotten bays.

We listened to the public comments.  We added some TMDL implementation measures mostly based on recommendations from the MD Department of Environment and we added some restorative measures mostly suggested by the Energy Agency established by Governor Erhlich.   We found the comments stating we had shown too much new growth area to be correct.  Information fed in to the computer about forest cover in the Showell and Newark area was not consistent with what we had used in the other growth areas so they were identified as much larger than they should have been.  We corrected that mapping error.  We also reduced growth area at the request of Town officials east of Route 13 in Pocomoke and at the request of specific property owners as well as from Town officials to the south of Berlin.  Plus we reduced the quadrangle growth area along old Route 113, just north of Berlin.

We re-examined our methodology for projecting population change and found it to be sound.  We feel it would be neglecting our responsibility to your board if we did not present realistic population projections.  And we feel it is more appropriately your responsibility to make the political decision to slow the pace of growth.  We also believe it is the public responsibility to convince you, their elected representatives, that it is not in the best interest of Worcester County to permit such a rate of population growth.

  (vicinity of Ocean Pines - provisional growth area)
Public comment also inspired us to reconsider issues.  Probably the most significant change we made from the March draft is to correct a discrepancy between the text & the land use map.  The text identified Route 589 as impacted and clearly stated the Planning Commission envisioned this area as designated for growth once the identified shortcomings were resolved.  Unfortunately, we showed this impacted area in agricultural land use on the March draft map.  We recognize that in not identifying that as a growth area on the land use map we were unduly burdening the property owners with having to obtain a rezoning once the problems are resolved.  Therefore we have added on this version of the map a striped designated area as a “provisional growth area”.  This makes the text & the map consistent and it permits those properties to receive appropriate zoning designations during the comprehensive rezoning process.  This correction in no way negates our recommendation that the traffic, school and emergency services shortfalls be resolved in the Ocean Pines vicinity before any additional development receives site plan or subdivision approvals.  It is imperative to not further degrade this situation and to adopt these special policy considerations.  It is part of what the public expects if we are to grow smarter.

You may have noticed in the opening paragraph of this document that it was not a unanimous decision of the Planning Commission to replace the 1989 plan.  There was concern that the County would be better served by working on neglected implementation recommendations such as an adequate public facilities ordinance, impact fees, design standards, conservation subdivision requirements and a sewer & water plan, not an inventory.  These neglected implementation recommendations have been brought forward to this version and they have been added to by the traditional community design instituted in this plan.   As progressive as some of our land use policies have been and as well-positioned as this new comprehensive plan might put us, this new plan will not be worth the paper it is written on unless we have a stronger commitment toward implementing.  That commitment needs to begin with a realization that this is a package plan where the design standards, the transfer of development rights program and the new zoning code & associated mapping need to be put into effect simultaneously!

The Planning Commission understands our role in this process is to propose a plan that represents how we should grow.  We believe we have done just that with the goals, objectives and recommendations made in each chapter of this final draft.  Although you may be tempted to just focus on the land use chapter and its associated mapping, we encourage you to first focus on how this plan works together.  If you do you will understand why specific land use recommendations have been made and recognize why those land use recommendations are in the best interest of Worcester County.

We also understand that it is human nature to object to change so we expect some opposition.

1. Some will suggest the plan is too environmental, while others will say it is not environmental enough.  Please recognize the collaboration that has taken place.  This plan is a balance between the various perspectives represented on this Planning Commission and a balance between the need to grow and the need to protect our economic viability, our quality of life and our natural resources.  This balance is part of what the public expects if we are to grow smarter!

2. Some will suggest their property should be designated as a growth area.  We did not include any parcels that did not meet the new growth criteria.  We did not include any parcels away from our traditional growth areas.  Plus this plan is also a collaboration between county planning and municipality planning.  We rejected the growth area designation requests of several property owners because the Towns in the vicinity of those requests asked us to not extend growth area to those locations.  We need to continue this effort to plan together by working closely with our towns when we make our specific zoning designations.  This is part of what we need to do if we are going to grow smarter!

3. Some will suggest the “provisional growth area” is not necessary.  We point out to you the same recognition that Route 589 was impacted and certain things needed to be done was made in the 1989 comprehensive plan.  They did not happen!  Special policy consideration needs to be instituted to ensure it happens during this planning period!  It is part of what the public expects if we are going to grow smarter.

4. Some will argue for continuing the estate land use category (surge map with estate zoning & 2002 critical area line overlaid).  Let the Planning Commission review for you the reasons for discontinuing this land use:  Very little of the land in the estate category meets our new growth criteria and some that does meet that criteria is recommended for more intense land use by the new plan.  It’s two acre zoning is false advertising – much of the area we designated as estate in 1992 is impacted by the 2002 Atlantic Coastal Bays Critical Area so the lot size is increased to 20 acres.  Technology has improved & we now know most of the estate land use category is in flood prone areas and in some of our most environmentally sensitive land.  Plus that parcel-by-parcel investigation with MDP I referred to earlier confirmed our suspicion that the pressure for development in recent years has resulted in much of the estate land that could sustain septic on two-acre lots is now developed. 

Being realistic, we can expect that the new TMDL regulations will further limit development on the land now designated as estate – the message we recently received from MDE was that development proposals will have to demonstrate they are not having any more impact on the watershed than the current land use.  The environmental constraints of most of the land identified as “estate” in 1989 make that very difficult, if not impossible, to prove.  Plus since we instituted the estate land use category our land use consumption has increased by one-third.  Finally, we are recommending discontinuing the land use designation not the two acre lot size designation.  Our new traditional community design will include some two acre lots.  Discontinuing the estate land use category is simply just good common sense!  It is part of what we need to do if we are going to grow smarter.

We told you in March that Worcester County is at a crossroads.  We are here today for direction.  We can continue down the same winding road with land use decisions that keep our citizens, our infrastructure and our economy in harms way, further degrading our forests, wetlands & waterways, keeping the land consumption rate higher.   Or we can turn and get caught in the flow of the hordes of baby boomers looking for second & retirement homes, getting swept along with land use decisions that make us look like every place else.  Or we can turn head on in to this wave of baby boomers, trying to push our way against the tide. 

Or we can cross this intersection & blaze the new trail laid out for us by the policies set forth in this final draft plan where we will be using our resources more wisely, improving the quality of our waterways and better managing how we grow on the land with more appropriately placed compact communities preserving the quality of life for some while improving it for others. 

You may not be able to do much about the poor land use decisions of the past but you can & you must change them for the future – for the sake of your children & grandchildren, for the sake of our economy & our infrastructure and for the sake of the future tax liabilities for the citizens of Worcester County.
We look forward to the work session where we can address your questions in more detail.  We also look forward to working with you on the implementation of this plan.  We will now do our best to answer any questions, hoping to get ourselves out of this crossroad’s intersection without even a minor fender bender.  Thank you.

Uploaded: 9/29/2005