Frederick County Commissioners’ President Blaine R. Young celebrated his 41st birthday today by voting to approve a plan to rezone 8,824 acres of county farmland that could lead to the construction of 12,688 new homes.
The Board of Commissioners voted 4-1 to give 165 property owners the rezonings they need to develop their land for commercial development and new housing — something that was taken away by the previous commissioners when they adopted the county’s growth plan in 2010.
“This is the best birthday present you could give me,” Young (R) said after the vote.
As a member of the previous board, Young voted against the 2010 comprehensive plan, a long-term blueprint for growth, because his commissioner colleagues at the time rezoned about 700 properties in an attempt to curb development and prevent sprawl.
In many cases, zoning on the land changed from commercial, residential or industrial to agricultural or resource conservation. The change meant many landowners would not be able to develop their properties.
But last year, the current board of commissioners began accepting requests from property owners seeking to have their zoning changed back — something Young, C. Paul Smith (R), Billy Shreve (R) and Kirby Delauter (R) promised to do during the 2010 election campaign. The four thought the zoning change caused a financial hardship for property owners who looked at their land as an investment.
The county received requests from 205 of the 700 property owners. After several public hearings and workshops, the board gave preliminary approval to 165 property owners and formal approval today.
Members of the previous board, including Commissioner David P. Gray (R), the lone vote against the rezonings, called it a sad day for Frederick County.
“The developers won, ordinary folks lost!,” said former Commissioner John “Lennie” Thompson Jr. (R), in an e-mail. "That ‘clink’ you hear in the background are the developers having a champagne toast. It’s the best comprehensive plan the developers' money could buy.”
Former Commissioner Kai J. Hagen (D) said he was not surprised by it.
“While everyone knew they were going to approve this massive rezoning, and the vote today was just a formality, I genuinely consider it a very sad day for Frederick County,” Hagen said in an e-mail.
Moments before the vote, Gray criticized his board colleagues in a prepared statement.
“The comprehensive plan before us today is neither comprehensive nor a plan,” Gray said. “The amount of discussion by elected officials on this plan has been minimal at best. Public engagement has been tolerated, but not encouraged. Issues of traffic congestion, preservation of productive farmland, overcrowded schools, protection of the environment and preservation of the unique quality of life of Frederick County have not been the concern of this board. It is a bad plan and will cost taxpayers significantly in the future.”
Young said the vote made good on a promise the four commissioners made when they ran for office.
“This was an item that was part of the last election,” he said. “It was thoroughly debated by all. We have done what we said we we’re going to do.... We’ve been extremely honest. We did exactly what we said we would do.”
Young said there was more than enough public discussion on the rezonings, including a hearing in August in which only about 80 residents came out to speak.
“There was plenty of public participation,” he said. “... A lot of thought went into this plan.”
Smith said over the last few years he has spent a lot time considering how the rezonings would impact the county, stressing that even with further development, more than 80 percent of the county will remain farmland, streams and mountains.
“I wanted to make a plan that would be good for the county’s growth,” he said. “I have wanted to make sure the plan is good.”
Delauter said he was glad to help the property owners who believed they were taken advantage of by the previous board.
“I’m happy to help them,” he said.
Shreve offered little comment.
Members of the previous board have stood by their decisions in 2010, and say their growth plan — which calls for the construction of 36,000 homes over the next 20 years — is an amount they consider more than enough to handle the county’s population, which is expected to grow from the current 234,669 to 287,913 in 2020.
“In an embarrassing process, one that ignored a responsible needs assessment or evaluation of a variety of significant impacts and costs, the commissioners have altered the map of Frederick County's future in a manner that is entirely contrary to the goals and values clearly expressed in the text of the comprehensive plan,” Hagen said.