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A Planning Commission Mission: Maybe it’s the Mercury

Is the battle over how to control real property rights in Frederick County the core issue?

A Planning Commission Mission: Maybe it’s the MercuryThe Evil of the Victors … Anger lingers, I guess, when you and your fellow cohorts are still reeling from the major defeat you suffered in the 2010 Frederick County elections.

Since the last post of the Land Planning Game Show: Playing Politics with Land Use Planning on the and the MacRo Report Blog, the defenders of the Frederick County Planning Commission’s mid-November motion to “Discontinue the proceedings of the 2011 County Comprehensive Plan and Zoning Review, as requested by the Board of County Commissioners, and to forward a recommendation to the Board …to continue the current plan and zoning in effect without change” have had a lot of angry words to say.

I must admit that after reading through the various comments that have popped up on various web forums on the Frederick News Post and Facebook, to name a few, it may very well be that the title theme should have been centered around quotes from the Mad Hatter from Lewis Carroll’s classic books from the mid late 1800’s Alice in Wonderland.

The Jabberwock, with eyes aflame,

Jaws that bait and claws that catch,

Beware the Jabberwock, my son …

It’s all about you, you know

(the Mad Hatter in the Tim Burton film Alice in Wonderland 2010)

Back in those days, people who spent too much time in the profession of making hats became a bit deranged from the poison in mercury that was part of the felt-making process. It was apparently so common that “Mad as a Hatter” became a colloquial conversation phrase in referring to one deemed crazy.

Speaking of mercury, in Greek mythology, Mercury was also known as the messenger of the Gods. Over the centuries, the phrase “shooting the messenger” emerged as a reference to what one did to the couriers who delivered bad news.

County Planning Commission member Bob White stakes his claim as a planning procedural expert in complete comprehensive plan reviews having been involved in the last two – 2010 and also back in the 1990’s.

But like the chemical mercury, spending too much time making the “felt” for those plans may have generated such pride of authorship, which he and others so blindly believed in the perfection of their work, that they have been trying to defend the indefensible.

In an email to me after the last post, Mr. White refers to the MacRo posts as “deliberately slanted and blatantly erroneous” and he charges county attorney Michael Chomel with a “deliberate misrepresentation” of Article 66B of Annotated Code of Maryland.

Now I know that my views can be looked upon by certain people as being somewhat biased, but for Mr. White to make such a charge of a county attorney who has served multiple boards of commissioners, is truly taking a direct shot at the messenger.

Seeking a means of making a point by splitting hairs is a well-worn tactic, as Mr. White makes the claim that “the BOCC [Board of County Commissioners] does not have the power or authority to initiate the process” of a comprehensive plan review. He cites section 3.05 of 66B as stating that the Planning Commission solely “makes and approves a plan” that it may recommend to the board. Okay, but isn’t there a difference between “initiating” (ordering or requesting) and “making” a plan?

Now I’m not a lawyer, but I have read Article 66B, as well as the pertinent section of the Frederick County Code, and even after seeking legal advice for this post, it seems that there is no statement in the Frederick County Code or in 66B that restricts the Board of County Commissioners from making a request of the Planning Commission to take up a plan or zoning review.

Besides, there is plenty of historical precedence where previous boards of commissioners have asked the Planning Commission to review all or certain sections of a current comprehensive plan. Take for instance former County Commissioner John L. “Lennie” Thompson’s 2006 infamous out of sequence Geronimo Plan that sought to down zone the “low hanging fruit” in the New Market region within a year of a prior board’s adoption of the Comprehensive Plan.

A lot of noise was made of the fact that our post made no reference to the much heralded contents in the November 16th letter from the Maryland Department of Planning addressed to Frederick County Community Development Director Eric Soter. Seems it was mysteriously received by commission member Catherine Forrence before her chairman Mr. McClurkin and many others got a copy.

Defenders of the Planning Commission in their web rants have stressed the importance of this letter in that any new zoning changes will not be consistent with the 2010 County Comprehensive Plan.

When I read the letter, among many things I found it interesting that the author, Peter Conrad, who is the Director of Local Government Affairs, apparently did not support Mr. White’s claim that the Board of County Commissioners had no authority to ask the Planning Commission to take action on a 2011 Comprehensive Plan and Zoning Review.

It seems that Mr. Conrad must have accepted the idea that such a review can take place, because he actually recommends approval of one of the several countywide rezoning requests (CPZ11-MD-17 in Middletown from Agriculture to Residential). While the general tone of the letter attempts to throw cold water on the effort, he is surely not claiming that the action by the Board of County Commissioners in requesting the Planning Commission undertake a plan and zoning review is illegal or inappropriate.

With the Maryland Department of Planning being the hopeful center of controlling all zoning in the state through Gov. Martin O’Malley’s ill-conceived PlanMaryland, it would seem that this letter could have carried very strong support for the allegations of Mr. White and Ms. Forrence.

Mr. O’Malley is quoted as stating that local county elected and appointed officials often make “stupid decisions,” so he thinks his deeply-rooted team of bureaucrats centralized in Baltimore are more capable at planning.

Now that’s just “Mad!”

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Rocky Mackintosh, President, MacRo, Ltd., a Land and Commercial Real Estate firm based in Frederick, Maryland. He is an appointed member of the Frederick County Charter Board. He also writes

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