County Comment/Comprehensive Plan Public
by Norman Bassett
The Washington County Board of County Commissioners will adopt a new version of the County Comprehensive Plan this summer, and are considering changes to the draft of that document inspired by comments from the public.
At its regular meeting on July 30, the Commissioners heard Planning and Community Development Director Bob Arch give a summary of comments from the recent public hearing for the Comprehensive Plan and the 10-day comment period following that hearing. Approximately 40 people testified at the hearing or submitted written comments. A number of public meetings were held on the issue over a one-year period, taking comment prior to development of the current draft document.
Arch told the Board that support for the Plan was shown in comments on rural agricultural densities, control of development and lowering proposed density recommendations.
Opposition was seen in comments on rural densities, property rights and decrease in value of farmland. Some citizens saw a value in stopping development for a time due to water resources and overall growth issues, Arch said.
Comments were received in favor of an elected Planning Commission, which would not be legal under current state law, Arch said.
Excise tax and Impact fee implementation, another comment received, has been under discussion by the Commissioners and the Planning Board, and increased funding for Farm Preservation has received support from the Board over the past four years.
A comment on Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) has been evaluated, but there is not enough development, at 600 units per year Arch said, to make a TDR program a viable option at the present time.
A comment on the need for higher paying jobs in the County was not viewed as directly related to the Comprehensive Plan.
Comments from the State Planning Administration dealt with Agricultural Land Values. A request to have language specifically addressing preservation of existing neighborhoods added to goals of the plan was requested by a citizen.
Other comments addressed the Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance, monitoring and assessing development impact, banning of billboards, controlling the rate as well as location of new growth, and definition of specific Town boundaries for Funkstown and Williamsport.
A number of requests for Map changes were requested as well. These changes would require individual decisions by the Commissioners.
Arch said the State has provided financial incentives to encourage Counties to follow Smart Growth principles, and told the Board that if development takes place in areas not supported by the state then costs associated with providing services for that growth would be the responsibility of the County. Smart Growth policies are likely to remain in place after the Governor’s Administration changes, Arch said.
The Comprehensive plan will drive changes in zoning districts, resulting in the need for additional public meetings and workshops to amend the Zoning Ordinance. Arch told the Board that there is no one right or wrong answer to a plan because it is a dynamic document that will change as time passes.
Under proposed density levels in the plan, development in areas outside the Urban Growth Area could be limited to 1 house per 10 acres in an “Agricultural” category, 1 house per 20 acres in a “Conservation” category and 1 house in 30 acres in a “Preservation” category. Some members of the agricultural community have stated that the value of their farms would be diminished should these densities be approved.
Density issues and assistance to farmers regarding development rights will require further Board discussion, leading to another workshop, to be held on August 20.