ANNAPOLIS – Not even Maryland’s most rural areas will be safe from urban sprawl if a 4,300-unit housing development is approved in Allegany County, opponents told the Maryland Court of Appeals on Thursday.
The 51 Allegany County residents are suing to block development of Terrapin Run, saying the 935-acre project would violate the county’s comprehensive plan. The Maryland Department of Planning has sided with opponents.
But developer Michael Carnock said planning decisions should remain with the local government. The Allegany County Planning Board gave its approval for Terrapin Run in June 2005.
“Allegany County is a county that has lost people. It is a county that needs people,” said Allegany County Commissioner James Stakem.
Terrapin Run would bring people to the county: The development along Route 40 calls for 4,300 single- and multi-family housing units, a community center, equestrian center and retail area.
But critics note that the county’s comprehensive plan calls for construction in already-populated areas like Frostburg or Cumberland, not out in the country. The Terrapin Run site is 25 miles from Cumberland and 45 miles away from Hagerstown.
“How do you reconcile that with a plan that, instead of directing growth to a population center, directs it away from a population center?” said William Wantz, attorney for the opponents, at Thursday’s hearing.
Every Maryland county has a comprehensive plan that guides development in the county, and zoning boards are supposed to consider the plan when they review plans to build.
Since 1992, the state has required that every comprehensive plan direct new construction to sites near existing population centers.
Allegany County’s plan says that “communities should look to existing communities as a focus of development activity.”
It also calls for restricting growth in “sensitive areas,” like hills, sites with endangered species, streams and floodplains.
But are these requirements, or just guidelines? Robert Paye, attorney for the developer, argued that Terrapin Run would be “in harmony with” the goal of protecting sensitive areas, even if it is not consistent with them.
“Will we destroy the mountainous character of Allegany County? Absolutely not,” Paye said.
He said the county planning board’s own studies concluded that the development would have little negative impact on the environment.
Paye said after the hearing that it is inappropriate for the state to tell counties how to build.
“It should be the local boards’ decisions. They know the land and the population,” Paye said. “It shouldn’t be a one-size-fits-all directive from Annapolis.”
But the Maryland Department of Planning agrees with the opponents, saying that letting this developer diverge from Allegany County’s comprehensive plan would weaken plans in other counties.
“The plan should be more than just a flag that you wave on the fourth of July. It should be out there waving every day, guiding your principles,” said Shelley Wasserman, assistant attorney general and counsel to department.
Wasserman, who was not a party to Thursday’s court arguments, said the issue amounts to seeing that a county enforce its own laws.
“The county enacted an excellent plan,” she said. “The point . . . was to get them to implement the law that they enacted.”
She said that the county might want to consider other kinds of development than housing complexes for that site.
“It might be expanded recreational uses, like hunting and tourism. And if it were, then protecting those rural resources would make that development more possible,” she said.
But Stakem said that is a decision that is best left to Allegany County.
“One shoe does not fit every foot,” he said.
Paye said he expects it will be four to six weeks before the Court of Appeals renders a decision in the case.
-30- CNS 11-29-07