ANNAPOLIS — A proposed statewide planning initiative that has angered officials in Maryland's rural counties finally went before a Senate committee Monday, where lawmakers showed support but also raised additional concerns.
The Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee heard testimony Monday on PlanMaryland, at the behest of state and county leaders who sought a public hearing out of fears the plan — which can be enacted by the governor and does not require General Assembly's approval — is being rushed to implementation without any legislative insight.
Opponents say the plan could allow the state to overrule local planning decisions or deny or delay funding to projects it thinks are in violation of the initiative.
"People have told me, 'It's not what's in the document, it's what's not in the document that's dangerous,' " said Senate Minority Leader E.J. Pipkin, Cecil Republican, who has led opposition to the plan. "Certain things are not well-defined."
Supporters of PlanMaryland say it will limit sprawl and protect the environment by encouraging development in existing population centers rather than undeveloped rural areas.
The Maryland Department of Planning insists that PlanMaryland does not change any existing laws and only sets nonbinding guidelines, which are based largely upon existing policies from former Gov. Parris N. Glendening's Smart Growth initiative of the 1990s.
State Planning Secretary Richard E. Hall said the plan more definitively outlines the state's priorities and that objections to it have come largely from a lack of understanding. He said the plan will combat a trend over the past 30 years, during which the state has consumed new land at three times the rate of its population growth.
"The plan cannot change law. To change laws, you have to go to the General Assembly," he said Monday. "The plan is meant to coordinate existing state programs."
Many rural lawmakers and county officials have bristled at the assertion, arguing that even if the plan does not give the state power to override local planning decisions, it could allow officials to heavily influence local processes.
Dozens of local officials and residents, most of whom oppose the plan, packed a briefing room on Monday to hear testimony from six officials on each side of the argument who were preselected by Mr. Pipkin and Mr. Hall.
Frederick County Commissioner Blaine R. Young told the committee that he and other county officials were left largely in the dark as to what PlanMaryland does, even after they wrote to state planning officials outlining their concerns.
"We're here to work together," said Mr. Young, a Republican. "We are concerned about the usurping of local land-use authority. We want to make sure the plan is crystal clear in that regard."
Planning officials said they provided ample time for input during a six-month public-comment period that ended last month, but many officials and senators suggested the department did a lackluster job of explaining the initiative.
Sen. Ronald N. Young, Frederick Democrat, did not object to PlanMaryland, but called its introduction a "PR debacle" and "an embarrassment" for Gov. Martin O'Malley. He added that the plan is unlikely to take away county authority, if only because it does "almost nothing new."
"It's all a restatement of Smart Growth, " Mr. Young said. "This is all a rehash, being presented as something new, and it's stirred up one heck of a hornet's nest. And for what? I don't know."
Mr. Hall said planning officials are working on a final version of the plan that will likely clarify the plan's collaborative nature in an effort to ease concerns over its impact on counties.
He said Mr. O'Malley, a Democrat, should receive the final plan later this month.
Mr. Pipkin has said he will introduce legislation in next year's General Assembly session, beginning Jan. 11, that would require legislative approval for any statewide planning document.
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