Real Estate Assets in Distress - Spring 2010

Date: March 18, 2010

Master Plan Season

By: John B. Gontrum

While the industrial, commercial development and homebuilding industries may still be in hibernation, both state and local governments are busy preparing Master Plans that will be critical to the future of economic development and housing in the State of Maryland in the next ten years. There are numerous opportunities for involvement at this stage in the development of these plans.

Maryland has long had laws mandating that local jurisdictions adopt comprehensive plans. Land use decisions were supposed to be consistent with those plans, but the plans were regarded merely as guides. Maryland required both chartered and non-chartered local governments to address certain elements in the plans, but little attention was paid to them by the private community in the development and land use processes.

Planners have paid attention, however, to the plans, and much development legislation has occurred as a direct result of the concepts addressed in the master plans. More importantly, capital budget decisions have been based on concepts such as "smart growth" and "priority funding areas." For example, the state would not support the funding of public water and sewer for new growth in areas not identified for such growth in the previously adopted comprehensive plans.

In the past few years, Maryland has become more aggressive in insisting on the importance of comprehensive planning. It is not enough for new development to be guided by such plans, or to be in general conformance with the plans. The adoption of the Smart, Green and Growing - Smart and Sustainable Growth Act of 2009 (Chapter 180 -2009) put new emphasis on the consistency of development decisions with comprehensive plans.

Now, Maryland is preparing its first ever state-wide Master Plan. This is a major recognition that it is the state, not local, government that ultimately is responsible for land use. The powers local jurisdictions have over land use and development are theirs only because the state has delegated them those powers. And, as an Assistant Attorney General recently remarked: "What the state has given, the state can take away." One need not look further than the Chesapeake and Coastal Bay Critical Area Program to see an example of the state reasserting its powers when it comes to land use issues.

The Maryland Master Plan will take at least two years to develop, and local meetings are being scheduled through May. The meetings are being organized for community input on the 12 visions stated in Section 1.01 of Article 66B of the Annotated Code of Maryland. Those visions, which must also be addressed in local community Master Plans, are as follows: Quality of Life and Sustainability (sustainability has become the key word of planning); Public Participation (education of various community constituencies is a popular topic); Growth Areas (concentrating growth in priority funding areas); Community Design (walkable design and live where you work are popular concepts); Infrastructure; Transportation; Housing; Economic Development; Environmental Protection; Resource Conservation; Stewardship; and Implementation.

The Maryland Plan is proceeding from the premise that over the next 20 years Maryland's population will grow by 1,000,000 people or 400,000 housing units. The desire is to focus that development in areas where infrastructure is available to accommodate the development and to have the development coincide with job opportunities to reduce commuting time. The Maryland Department of Planning website gives more details about the proposed statewide plan and community meetings.

There is significant impetus for regional planning given the concepts and consequences of smart growth planning. Smart growth planning protects much of the rural area of the state from additional development. Lack of infrastructure and the desire to conserve resources should severely limit the amount of growth in the rural areas. Given that one of the stated purposes of the planning process is to bring "sprawl" to a halt, the vast majority of the anticipated population growth will be channeled into areas where infrastructure already exists, in particular the Baltimore-Washington corridor. This means more infill development and redevelopment and significantly higher densities of populations than the suburban areas have desired in the past. This is the flip side of "smart growth" which, so far, has not been implemented due to a lack of will by the population and avoidance of stress on older infrastructure, but it must be addressed if indeed the anticipated population counts occur. If land use decisions are made on a very local basis, there will not be the political will to make the hard decisions necessary to absorb the growth. Consequently, regional planning to address infrastructure issues and capital investment becomes more important.

Howard County will be updating its current comprehensive plan starting this year.

Baltimore County is in the midst of its comprehensive planning. Baltimore County must produce a Master Plan by October, 2010; otherwise, it will not be permitted to rezone properties until such plan is adopted. The Office of Planning is holding its public forums. Although the visions and goals of the county plan and state plan are virtually identical, it is intriguing that Baltimore County is premising its plan on totally different population projections than the state is using. Baltimore County is anticipating an addition of only 30,000 people over the next 10 years, with growth toward the end of the period diminishing. Looked at another way, projecting the county's growth out over the next 20 years, one could reach the conclusion that the county is expecting to grow by a total of 50,000 people. So where are the other 950,000 people that the state is expecting to absorb going to live? Not in the rural areas of the surrounding counties, and probably not all in the city. There is a real disconnect between the numbers being used by the state planning office and by the county planning office, and the use of wrong numbers has major implications. The state at least will have the advantage of census numbers by the end of its plan's development. The county will not.

Baltimore County, like the state and other counties surrounding Baltimore, is planning on little or no growth in the rural areas. The land outside the URDL is to be shut down as much as possible from additional development. The low level of development projected by the county is to be channeled toward transportation hubs. Older communities are to be conserved from unwanted infill development.

The budget implications and growth implications from the county's plan are profound. Baltimore County is looking at channeling future growth (with higher densities than seen in many years) and capital investment toward specific areas. The older communities are to be conserved and are anticipated to provide the "affordable" housing for the future. The redevelopment of failed shopping centers is viewed as an opportunity to provide additional community centers and residential development. The new communities are to be sustainable with high quality design. They will be expensive to develop. The 12 visions articulated in the state Plan must be addressed.

Up to this point, despite much advertisement and effort on the part of the County Office of Planning, there has been little public involvement. This is a shame and may create havoc with individual projects which are driven by an adopted plan that has not been embraced by local communities.

Meetings are being held in the seven council districts every Tuesday evening to solicit input. You may wish to participate. For more information see the county website at