Maryland planners are looking to correct the record after a Frederick County official said state smart growth rules are determining the density of a controversial 1,510-home development in Monrovia.
The state does not control local growth decisions or decide the compactness of particular housing projects, a Maryland Department of Planning official wrote in an email to the Frederick County Planning Commission. The email’s author sent the correspondence to address “incorrect statements” made at a Wednesday hearing on the proposed Monrovia Town Center.
During several hours of public testimony, some speakers objected to the dense housing arrangement planned for the town center and said they would prefer homes spaced out on 1- to 2-acre lots. Planning Commissioner Bill Hopwood responded that the state discourages these large-lot developments.
He mentioned that the commission must follow Maryland mandates and said “five, 10 houses an acre, this is what the state tells us they want.”
Not so, wrote David Cotton, of the state planning department.
“The state has no authority over local zoning. The densities proposed for the Monrovia Town Center project are the result of local zoning and market forces,” wrote Cotton, western Maryland regional planner.
Jim Gugel, the county’s planning director, said the state does have certain rules about where to channel funding. State dollars for highways, water and sewer construction, and new schools are directed toward priority funding areas, regions where communities exist or are planned.
The town center site is within an area slated for growth, but for compliance with priority funding area criteria, its zoning must allow up to 31⁄2 dwellings per acre. The site must also have planned links to public water and sewer systems within 10 years, Gugel said.
He noted that developers don’t have to build to the maximum density; as long as it has the right zoning, the town center could still meet the state’s funding criteria, even if it’s less compact than 3.5 units per acre.
But for a developer, it’s probably not financially feasible to build on 1- to 2-acre lots and still pay for necessary water and sewer hookups, Gugel said.
However, as Cotton wrote, the “state does not mandate ... certain zoning densities nor where such densities are placed.”
In an email Monday, Hopwood acknowledged making faulty statements at the planning commission meeting.
“Plain and simple I made a mistake by not having all the facts correct for which I regret,” Hopwood wrote.
However, Cotton’s message refutes assertions by multiple officials, said Amy Reyes, an opponent of the current town center plan.
She pointed to a March letter to the editor by Commissioners President Blaine Young, who wrote that developments on 1- to 2-acre lots are “no longer possible in Frederick County or anywhere else in the state of Maryland for that matter.” The letter published in The Frederick News-Post continues by stating that state laws limit counties to denser development.
Cotton’s email counters these claims by explaining that county officials control local growth, not the state, Reyes said. The confusion about state law raises bigger questions about whether county leaders are equipped to make decisions about Monrovia, she added.
“Do they not know what they’re doing up there?” asked Reyes, vice president of the group Residents Against Landsdale Expansion. “This is a very big impact that they’re putting in one small community, and for them to not know the laws, it really concerns me.”
Reyes also said any talk about priority funding is speculative and shouldn’t guide decision-making. The project site at the intersection of Md. 75 and Md. 80 is not yet in a priority funding area, and Reyes said there are no guarantees that the county will pocket state funding for nearby infrastructure.
Young, who sits on the planning commission, said he understands the desire for more widely spaced houses. However, larger-lot communities in areas such as Monrovia typically rely on well and septic systems, and new state laws have curtailed the spread of development on septic, he said.
Follow Bethany Rodgers on Twitter: @BethRodgersFNP.