- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 28, 2012

ANNAPOLIS — State senators from rural Maryland are proposing a bill that would block the administration of Gov. Martin O’Malley from using a new statewide planning initiative to deny permits or mandatory funding to local projects that don’t comply with the initiative’s recommendations.

Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, Charles Democrat, told a Senate committee on Tuesday the bill would clear up lingering concerns over PlanMaryland, a set of guidelines approved last year by Gov. Martin O’Malley that encourage development in existing population centers and discourage building in rural, undeveloped areas.

Mr. O’Malley, a Democrat, issued an executive order approving the plan, despite worries from many rural officials that it would allow the state to threaten local zoning authority and potentially withhold permits or cut mandated local funding.

Mr. Middleton said he supports PlanMaryland, but that his bill will more explicitly state that it is merely a set of recommendations that would not supercede county authority.

“This bill is an attempt to make it very, very clear,” he said. “The state can fund where they think priority funding would be, but at the end of the day it leaves [local development] up to the counties.”

The governor acted upon a 38-year-old state law that allows his administration to implement a land-use plan without approval from the General Assembly, signing into effect a plan that he says will limit sprawl and protect the environment.

State officials spent four years crafting PlanMaryland, which is based largely upon the state’s Smart Growth initiative of the 1990s.

Many state lawmakers and county officials from Western Maryland, Southern Maryland and the Eastern Shore worried last year that the new initiative would hurt their local businesses and construction industries by stifling development.

“We do have concerns that the final version of the plans could eventually be expanded to become a state litmus test for permits and approvals, and that does give us some concern,” said Leslie Knapp Jr., associate director of the Maryland Association of Counties.

Mr. O’Malley and state planning officials have insisted the plan would not give the state any say in local planning procedures, but the governor acknowledged last year it could have a heavy effect on discretionary funding that the state chooses to give local projects through its capital budget.

“The consequences, if you will, will be primarily budget consequences,” he said.

Sen. Ronald N. Young, Frederick Democrat, thinks supporters and opponents are excessively concerned with PlanMaryland, and he doesn’t expect the plan to carry any more weight with discretionary funding decisions than the state’s existing Smart Growth policies.

“I don’t think PlanMaryland does anything that wasn’t in that,” he said. “It’s given us a lot of headaches and long meetings, but nothing has really changed.”

• David Hill can be reached at dhill@washingtontimes.com.

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