Conservative lawmakers have won a skirmish in what they call a "War on Rural Maryland," getting state officials to delay implementing a land-development plan until a Senate committee has its say.
Officials made the decision at the request of state Senate Minority Leader E.J. Pipkin, a Cecil Republican who is leading the charge against PlanMaryland, an initiative intended to limit sprawl and protect the environment by encouraging compact development in existing population centers.
"The governor has approved himself the authority to tack new law onto a 37-year-old law and thereby bypass the General Assembly," Mr. Pipkin told other state lawmakers last week. "This is as wrong as wrong can be."
The Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee will now meet with Maryland Department of Planning officials Dec. 12 — one month before the full 2012 General Assembly session opens.
The briefing is in fact a second victory for Mr. Pipkin, who persuaded Senate leaders this month to arrange a Jan. 12 meeting with planning officials. The meeting was rescheduled to Dec. 12 to make sure it would take place before PlanMaryland reached the desk of Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat.
Still, the plan does not require assembly approval because a 1974 state law allows the governor to enact his own land-use policies.
Critics argue that the plan will allow the state to control county-planning procedures and that its preference toward building up already-populous areas will stifle rural development, denying the areas infrastructure improvement or construction-related business opportunities.
State officials have insisted that the plan is simply a set of guidelines and will not allow the state to change or overrule existing local planning policies. The plan builds on many of the same principles as former Gov. Parris N. Glendening's Smart Growth initiative, which the Democrat touted for much of his two terms from 1995 to 2003.
While PlanMaryland might not specifically allow the state to make local planning decisions, county officials throughout the state have worried that it could carry major influence on development, said Michael Sanderson, executive director of the Maryland Association of Counties.
Mr. Sanderson said the main concern among counties is that state officials could set roadblocks for county-endorsed projects that defy PlanMaryland by denying them funding or permits or accompanying infrastructure and road improvements.
"I think it's unanimous, and not just a rural concern," he said. "Having elected officials who are accountable back home and familiar with their communities is the best instrument for making those policies."
Planning officials accepted feedback on the plan during a six-month public-comment period that ended Nov. 9. They received input from more than 3,000 people, according to Maryland Department of Planning spokesman Andrew Ratner.
He said officials are still making revisions to PlanMaryland and likely will finalize it after meeting with Senate members. The plan would then be submitted to Mr. O'Malley for his approval.
It remains to be seen whether protests from Mr. Pipkin and other opponents will have any effect on the plan's final details or chances of approval.
Mr. Pipkin, who coined the term War on Rural Maryland, has said he will introduce a bill in the upcoming assembly that would require legislative approval for any statewide planning initiative — though the governor could approve PlanMaryland well before such a bill could pass the assembly or be signed into law.
Mr. Sanderson said that he hopes officials will add language to the plan protecting local governments from any potential negative repercussions, but that he's unsure what the final product will look like.
"I don't think anybody really knows because this is such an unusual process," he said. "We're very familiar with supporting or opposing a bill, but this isn't a bill."
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