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Government layoffs spark debate over zoning, development

Worcester County commissioners defend cost-cutting; environmentalists worry

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On the surface, the consolidation of planning departments in Worcester County, Maryland, seems a reasonable response to a recession-fueled drop in home sales and new construction. But the timing of the cuts, coming amid a major rewrite of development policies for one of the East Coast’s premier beach-front communities, is drawing suspicion from environmentalists and scrutiny from both the state planning department and the editorial page of the Baltimore Sun.

On one side, environmental groups say that county commissioners have opened the door to developers by consolidating three departments — Comprehensive Planning, Environmental Programs, and Development Review and Permitting — into one and eliminating 11 of 65 jobs. The Assateague Coastal Trust (ACT) and 1000 Friends of Maryland, among others, say they’re concerned that the cuts occurred just as the county was rewriting land-use and zoning codes that will shape development for years. Now those codes are being written, and will be monitored, by a substantially reduced staff.

But Bud Church, vice president of the county commission, insists that his sole motivation for proposing the consolidation and resulting layoffs on May 26 was to address hard economic times: “We are like every other government entity in this country right now facing major shortfalls.” The commissioners maintain they are acting responsibly by trimming more than $500,000 in unnecessary annual government spending. The commissioners voted 4-3 for the consolidation in a meeting closed to the public.

“These positions were eliminated as a direct result of the decline in the construction industry and significant reductions in permit applications,” said a commission statement. “The vast majority of these positions were directly involved in permitting and inspections of new development, while the remaining staff members provided support.”

The commissioners asserted that their their “commitment to smart growth and the protection and preservation of our precious natural resources has not faltered. In fact, Worcester County is now more committed than ever to these tenets prescribed in our Comprehensive Plan.”

“The department consolidation was not easy,” added the commissioners, “but it was necessary.”

Questioning the cuts

Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of 1000 Friends of Maryland, an environmental advocacy group, counters that the reduction in building pressure would have allowed county staff more time to work on writing the new zoning code. “It is actually time to get the zoning changes done and done right,” Schmidt-Perkins said, noting that as the economy recovers, “This area is going to open up, and it is going to open up fast.”

While most of the county’s 300,000 acres are farms and forests dotted by a handful of inland villages, the Ocean City waterfront and Ocean Pines community across Isle of Wight Bay have some of the most densely developed waterfronts on the Eastern Shore.

Ocean Pines consists of 3,000 acres — about 1 percent of Worcester County’s approximately 300,000 acres — yet its 8,000 single-family homes and townhouses, along nine miles of waterfront, account for more than 20 percent of the county’s population. Of the county’s estimated 50,000 residents, about 22,500 live year round in those two communities. Ocean City, with 10,000 hotel rooms and 21,000 condos, boasts more than eight million visitors a year to its 10 miles of beach. Ocean Pines has almost 8,000 single-family homes, townhouses and condos on 3,000 acres, with nine miles of waterfront, much of it on canals.

Despite commission assurances to the contrary, some environmental activists remain concerned that the job cuts represent some sort of hidden, pro-development agenda.

In late June, the Assateague Coastal Trust filed a complaint with the Maryland Open Meetings Act Compliance Board, claiming the county commissioners’ consolidation vote should have been made in a public session. While no hearing date has been set, Worcester County Attorney Sonny Bloxom said, “The County did nothing wrong in closing the meeting” because state law allows closed meetings to make administrative and personnel decisions. He said the county has until early August to reply.

Environmentalists are hardly reassured.

“It [the consolidation] is just too coincidental with new zoning regulations just being made open to the public. The general public is not happy,” said Kathy Phillips, who patrols the coastal bays looking for pollution as the “coastkeeper” for the Assateague Coastal Trust. She noted that more than 350 people showed up at a public comment meeting on the draft of the zoning code on June 2, many of them saying they were worried that the county was straying from its 2006 Comprehensive Plan.

“Those criticisms were more politically motivated than environmentally motivated,” Church said of Phillips, a county Democratic Party leader, who ran against the incumbent Church, a Republican, for a commission seat in 2006. Church was re-elected with 59 percent of the vote.

Yet Phillips’ concerns have been echoed by others, including a Baltimore Sun editorial that questioned whether the layoffs were “an excuse to change policy in a backdoor manner.” Church said the Sun got it wrong.

A full-page ad in the Worcester County Times on June 25, paid for by a local citizens’ group, Coalition for a Safe and Sane Route 113, questioned whether the consolidation was connected to campaign contributions from developers in the 2006 commissioners’ race.

“Quite honestly, nothing could be further from the truth,” said Church, who is president of Coldwell Banker Bud Church Realty in Ocean City. Church received $29,915 in contributions, according to state records compiled by the University of Maryland’s Center for American Politics and Citizenship. Almost half of the money came from businesses, including his real estate firm and other development concerns.

A controversial new code

County officials said they received more than 100 written comments about the new draft zoning ordinance, and admitted that many of them were critical. In a June 1 letter to the Worcester commissioners, Rich Josephson of the Maryland Department of Planning expressed several concerns, among them that the draft ordinance contains an “apparent deviation” from the Comprehensive Plan. The proposed draft, he noted, retains the “Estate Zoning District” classification (“excessive amounts of land per housing unit”), which the Comprehensive Plan calls for eliminating.

Ocean City is a popular summer destination for residents of Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, drawing about eight million visitors per year to its 10 miles of beaches, 10,000 hotel rooms, and 21,000 condos. During a June 25 county Planning Commission meeting, Edward Tudor, director of the consolidated department and principal author of the draft zoning code, defended the proposed estate zoning designation, explaining that the Comprehensive Plan was not specific on how to eliminate estate zoning, and noting that the county commissioners decided in September 2008 that the estate zones “would not be eliminated at this time but would instead sunset at some future time.”

A letter from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation on June 11 also called for stricter language in the code to control water runoff into rivers and bays from new developments. Tudor told the Planning Commission that that the draft code should “be revised to ensure no net loss of water quality in those waters.”

Phillips said her primary concern is the impact development has on the coastal bays and rivers she patrols. “Every bay and river in the county is on the [federal impaired waters] list, and the county has to work to get them off that list,” she said. “The first place to start is our zoning regulations.”

The first report card on the coastal bays and rivers issued in June by the Maryland Coastal Bays Program and the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science stated that the water quality ranged from good in Sinepuxent Bay in the south to poor in the St. Martin River and Newport Bay. It gave the bays overall a grade of C+. By comparison, the Chesapeake Bay was given a C- rating this year.

The county planning commission is studying the draft of the zoning code before referring it to the commissioners for approval later this summer.