|Where Do We Go from Here?
By Bobby Sturgell
Nearly two years ago, several Small Area Planning Committees, including the Deale-Shady Side Committee, began their work. The process is now nearly complete.
In October, the Deale-Shady Side Committee presented its plan - along with the comments of the County's Department of Planning and Zoning - to Anne Arundel County's Planning Advisory Board in a final public hearing. The Planning Advisory Board reviewed both sets of recommendations and made their own, which will be deliberated by the County Council next spring. Upon approval by the council and the county executive, the recommendations will be incorporated into the county's General Development Plan for the next 10 years. At that time, the process will begin again.
The small area planning process is a first for Anne Arundel County; its objective is noble: to give local citizens input into the future development plans for their communities. The concept embodies the philosophy that government works best when it functions at the lowest level and with the greatest citizen input. But, with one more round of committees beginning this January, the county - the Department of Planning and Zoning, in particular - is having second thoughts.
In its final report, the Deale-Shady Side Committee recommended a citizen group be formed to continue working with the county's professional planners, providing citizen input on the development and approval process. The recommendation was met with stiff resistance. The staff of the Department of Planning and Zoning replied that "the county already has a number of citizen boards that communicate with the county administration and agencies. Another board or committee is not necessary.
"The administration does not support this concept," the staff further commented. "A new set of 16 separate review panels for each of the Small Planning Areas will add confusion, inconsistency and delay the process."
Perhaps the most notable staff comment was this: "Establishment of a citizen panel would further impede the orderly development process. Continuation of the committee is not necessary."
These comments are a far cry from those made two years ago, when the department hailed the Small Area Planning Committees as an innovative example of good government. So what happened in two years? Why the about-face?
By creating the Small Area Planning Committees, Planning and Zoning opened Pandora's box and unleashed the pent-up frustrations of citizens who for years had questioned the development process and had never been able to find answers - from simple issues of obtaining a variance for their own household project to why big developers seem able to get things done. Through the committees, citizens became empowered and now had a voice with which to speak.
The contentious development issues of the summer exemplify that newly found voice: the Kent Island Wal-Mart, the Parole town center and the Deale Safeway.
And no wonder. How is it that on the day after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency asks the Army Corps of Engineers to suspend a permit and revisit certain environmental issues, Planning proceeds to approve the project in question without resolving those issues? And how can you put a big-box store in Parole when the development plan calls for a mixed-use, pedestrian friendly town center? These are exactly the types of decisions that have frustrated the citizens of Anne Arundel County for years. What is worse, they are made in the halls of Planning and Zoning - without benefit of citizen input or involvement.
Sure, having citizen input and involvement may slow the "orderly development process." But the benefits far outweigh the slight detrimental impact. After all, if citizen boards or committees are good for other county agencies (e.g., the Board of Education), why not for Planning and Zoning? A citizen board working with that department could not only provide input of proposed development but also make recommendations on improving the way the department conducts business, including better customer service, record keeping and efficiency.
With the Small Area Planning Committees, Anne Arundel County has started something truly beneficial. Instead of shutting the door, Planning and Zoning should open itself to more public scrutiny. Shedding light on their processes, however painful , will only increase their credibility with the public. Equally important, the continuation of citizen input through a review panel or on-going small area planning committee will benefit the community, especially on major subdivisions and commercial developments.
A member of the Planning Advisory Board recently commented that that board is "interested in what is best for the community, not what is best for the developer." Planning and Zoning would be wise to adopt that motto.
Sturgell is a member of the Deale-Shady Side Small Area Planning Committee.