Part III: Comprehensive Plan & Smart Growth

Part III: The Comprehensive Plan & “Smart Growth”

April 14, 2008

1. What is the Comprehensive Plan?

While there are many “technical” definitions of a Comprehensive Plan (or Master Plan), the most essential elements of them all state that the plan is a document that presents a community’s vision for its future and recommends coordinated policies and strategies to guide public and private investments that will make it happen. The Comprehensive Plan should not be viewed as an ordinance, but it does have an important role in the regulatory process. Its primary role is to serve as a guide to use in drafting, amending, or interpreting the objectives of the codes that specifically regulate the use of land and development activity, such as the Zoning Ordinance and Subdivision Regulations. In fact, the local Zoning Ordinance must be adopted and amended in a form that is “in accordance with” (or consistent with) the Comprehensive Plan (Article 66-B, Section 4.03 (a) (1)). The plan also governs or directs other aspects of the community, such as infrastructure and public facility improvements and expansions (water and sewer availability), economic development policies, and housing programs. You may click here to access Cumberland's current Comprehensive Plan.

20 Year Horizon
Most plans are typically written for a 20 year horizon, because it is very difficult with the pace of change in our society to look much farther into time than that and expect market conditions to remain relatively stable and the community’s citizens to remain in consensus on the future vision. A 20 year time frame spans an average generation, and that is usually the maximum length of time that 1 can expect any vision of the future to remain relatively stable. If you want to prove that to yourself, think of how your own vision of your community’s future has changed over the past 20 or more years (if you have even lived in the same community for that period of time). Ideas about and desires for the future change with time and experience, as well as the market forces that you must navigate or influence to achieve that vision. A community’s plan must be able to shift and adjust with those changes to remain relevant and useful. Yet, if you plan for a shorter time frame than 20 years, it could become very expensive or challenging for the community to implement the plan, because it often takes time and substantial resources to make broad changes to a large community without creating discomfort for its citizens. As past experience has shown, people react strongly to rapid changes in their community and their social environment, and a divisive climate can make it harder to build consensus on a vision for the future.

The Comprehensive Plan is part research document and part visionary or conceptual. To be truly effective, the plan must contain:
A. An understanding of the community’s long-term history
B. An inventory of existing conditions within the community
C. An analysis of recent changes and forces that affect current trends
D. A firm idea of where the community needs to be in the future

Future Vision
The most important aspect of the Comprehensive Plan is the future vision. The most customary visual representation of that vision is the “Future Land Use Map,” which depicts the desired future development pattern of the community. This map can be very detailed (with specific land use categories applied to specific properties) or conceptual (with generalized land use “bubbles” that don’t necessarily coincide with property boundaries). The method of depicting the desired future state is not usually as important as how clearly it conveys the vision. It is important that the future vision is shown in a manner that makes it easy for the reader to understand how the community should change in the future or what the community is trying to achieve through the plan. The more clearly the vision is presented in the plan, the easier it is for the plan to be interpreted and applied consistently and correctly by current and future staff. The future vision becomes the yard stick that will be used to decide what changes need to made to existing resources to achieve the community’s future development goals and objectives. The plan then conveys these changes through a coordinated implementation schedule that guides and prioritizes all the individual improvement projects, preservation activities, and other strategies.

Long-Term History
The long-term history of a community helps us understand its social and economic function and what makes it special or unique. All communities have a historic role or context within their respective regions that defines how they came to be and what drew people to live in them. In that respect, this historic context further provides a way to understand the shared values and lifestyles that bond the people who live there and create the unique “sense of community” that its residents value. It also may influence land development patterns in the community and the design of its buildings. The future vision of the community should build upon that long-term history to preserve the community’s uniqueness (which makes it feel like a special place to live and creates a source of community pride) and its heritage (which provides a source of continuity and connection between past and future generations).

Resource Inventory
Each plan also must include an inventory of existing “resources” (including natural resources and public facilities, services, and infrastructure, such as roads, schools, emergency services, and water and sewer systems). An evaluation of the existing conditions of each resource is essential to decide how they should be maintained or improved to achieve the community’s future goals. Consequently, the community’s resources are tools that can be used to affect change or achieve the plan’s vision. The evaluation of their existing conditions serves as a benchmark to determine how or in what way they should be protected, maintained, or improved.

Community Plan
A community’s plan also must evaluate recent changes affecting the community and the underlying market forces that have caused those changes to occur. In other words, you can’t fix a problem that you don’t fully understand. Some changes occur over long periods of time, while others have occurred in recent times. Likewise, some changes are driven by national and even global forces and others are caused by local or regional forces. It is important to understand the true nature and magnitude of the changes occurring in the community to know how-or even if-they can be affected by local policies and actions. If recent changes or trends are creating changes that are consistent with the community’s future vision, then the focus of the plan’s recommendations may be on managing the pace of change. If the changes are occurring that are undesirable or contrary to the community’s future vision, then the plan may be designed to redirect or, if possible, reverse those changes.

2. Legal Requirements:

Article 66-B of the Maryland Annotated Code requires each Planning Commission to prepare and approve a Comprehensive Plan. The basic requirements for the plan are outlined in Section 3.05, which is one of the longest sections in Article 66-B. The adoption process is governed by Section 3.07. Once adopted, the Planning Commission must review and, if necessary, revise or amend the plan at least once every 6 years (Section 3.05 (b)). The basic requirements for a Comprehensive Plan were expanded in 1992 and 2006 by the Maryland Legislature. The 1992 amendments, known collectively as the Economic Growth, Resource Protection, and Planning Act of 1992, required that all local plans address 7 State Development Policy Visions (Section 1.01). An 8th Vision was added in 2000. These Visions relate to protection of the environment and sensitive natural resources (with a focus on the Chesapeake Bay), promoting concentrated growth (rather than “sprawl”), and making sure that adequate public facilities and infrastructure are in place to support future growth. These “Visions” were reinforced in greater detail by House Bill 1141 in 2006, which added specific requirements for 3 new comprehensive plan elements (or chapters). The new list of required elements is:
  • A. A statement of goals, objectives, and policies to guide development
  • B. A land use element
  • C. A transportation plan element
  • D. A community facilities plan element
  • E. A mineral resources element (if current geological information is available)
  • F. A water resources element (added by HB-1141)
  • G. An element containing recommendations for land development regulations (such as Zoning and Subdivision Regulations)
  • H. Recommendations for the determination, identification, and designations of areas within the county which are of critical State concern
  • I. A sensitive areas element (requirements for which were expanded in 2006)
  • J. A municipal growth element (added by HB-1141 for cities and towns only)
Article 66-B (Section 3.05 (a) (6)) gives voluntary authority for a community to include, if desired, additional plan elements, at least 8 of which are listed in the statute. Local governments must adopt the new elements required by House Bill 1141 by October 1, 2009, or they will lose the authority to rezone property until compliance has been achieved.

Comprehensive Plan
The Comprehensive Plan may be adopted in whole or in sections. Some local governments choose to adopt plans that have both community-wide elements and special stand-alone sections for individual neighborhoods or “sectors” within the community. This structure allows the government to advance specific goals, objectives, and policies for specific distinct “neighborhoods,” while maintaining a document that addresses all of the required elements for the entire community. This format is especially popular among urban communities, which have varied housing redevelopment, economic development, and public facility issues in different neighborhoods.

Adoption Process
The basic adoption process in Section 3.07 requires a 60-day mandatory review and comment period for all adjoining planning jurisdictions and State and local jurisdictions that have responsibility for financing or constructing public improvements that are necessary to the plan. This 60-day review and comment period must be completed prior to the Planning Commission’s required public hearing. If a municipal growth element is required, the municipality must provide an additional 30-day review and comment period to the County Commissioners and subsequently meet with them to resolve any disagreements prior to beginning the formal adoption process, in accordance with the provisions in Section 3.05 (e) (5). After a public hearing, the Planning Commission may “approve” the plan or plan section by a majority of its members. If the Planning Commission approves the plan, it must forward a certified copy of the plan, along with the recommendations it received during the 60-day review and comment period, to the legislative body as part of its report. While the plan may be approved by the Planning Commission, the law requires final adoption by the legislative body (City Council or County Commissioners.

3. How the Comprehensive Plan Relates to Local Development Codes

Maryland law requires that the local Zoning Ordinance be adopted “in accordance with” the Comprehensive Plan. In this regard, the plan serves as a general guide for the community’s zoning map and petitions by landowners to rezoning their property. The same consistency expectation applies to reviews of subdivision applications, although it is not specifically stated in Article 66-B. Decisions regarding the consistency of any specific zoning decision or subdivision application with the Comprehensive Plan are not always easy to make. Comprehensive Plans are so broad in scope that it is often possible to find specific statements that, when taken out of context or when not explained in detail, appear to conflict or seem contradictory. Therefore, it is always important to interpret individual policy statements and maps from the broader perspective of the general spirit and intent of the plan narrative to make sure that the statements are being understood from the context of the community’s total future vision (the “big picture”). It is also important to remember that the plan is being prepared at a community-wide scale, which also makes it hard to apply the plan’s goals and recommendations to a single piece of property.

Despite the difficulties that can occur when determining the consistency of a specific zoning map amendment or subdivision proposal with the Comprehensive Plan, MD law requires that the plan be considered when determining the merits of a rezoning petition. Generally speaking, a zoning change that benefits a specific property owner in a way that is not consistent with the Comprehensive Plan can be challenged in court as a “spot zoning.” Contrary to popular belief, a “spot zoning” is not simply a zoning change granted to 1 small property. Rather, it is a zoning change that primarily benefits a certain property owner or owners and does not serve community needs or interests that are expressed in the Comprehensive Plan.

In this sense, the Comprehensive Plan serves as a general guide for all local development regulations-most specifically the Zoning Ordinance, but also ultimately for the Subdivision Regulations and general Building Codes. It provides the foundation to adopt local development regulations, and it guides decisions regarding changes and updates to them. However, like most difficult decisions, interpretations of the Comprehensive Plan often require considerable thought, balanced reasoning, and a good dose of common sense.

4. The Concept of Smart Growth:

Although the term “Smart Growth” is a relative newcomer in the Planning dictionary, the concept itself is not new. In essence, it can be viewed as an outgrowth of earlier planning concepts that have evolved over the past 30 years. As the former Soil Conservation Service completed many of its county-wide Soil Surveys in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, planners and Health Department officials began to use special “soil-based lot size” tables derived from those surveys to determine the appropriate minimum size of lots served by septic systems. These tables provided one of the first tools to determine the development capability of rural lands in areas not subject to zoning. With the expansion of mapping resources and the advent of early computer-based mapping in the 1980’s, planners developed a way to overlay maps of constrained soils, steep slopes, floodplains, and other environmental constraints to begin evaluating what was termed as the basic “carrying capacity” of a community for development. This term refers to the ability of the land to support development with minimal impact on the environment. Although the term never gained broad public attention, it remains one of the fundamental principles of Smart Growth.

Sustainable Development
Later, in the early 1990’s, another term gained popularity in planning circles that is still used today. This term, “sustainable development,” expanded upon the carrying capacity concept to include elements of financial and economic impact. In other words, sustainable development refers to development that does not exceed the ability of the environment or public facilities to support it and also does not create a drain on public finances (the tax base). It represents development that minimizes environmental impacts and provides a positive fiscal stream for future generations-thereby making it “sustainable” over time. This added another basic premise of Smart Growth.

The term “Smart Growth” has become so popular that is has been over-applied and misused. In fact, it has been used by developers to describe developments that have the elements of sustainable development (low environmental impact design, a mix of uses, and high value homes), even if they are located far away from the essential services and jobs that support them. Consequently, developments that some call “Smart Growth,” are criticized by others as “sprawl.” This problem may have occurred because the term became a trendy catch phrase long before it was clearly defined and thoroughly understood. Additionally, the degree to which a specific development is heralded as an example of “Smart Growth” or criticized as “sprawl” is determined by the scope of each person’s perspective. One who looks at a development within the confines of the development site can make a better argument that an isolated development is an example of “Smart Growth” than 1 who views it from the context of the larger community.

Perhaps the biggest reason so many people use the term “Smart Growth” is because no one in the development debate wants to be associated with “dumb growth.” However, if you look at the legislative changes that have been associated in Maryland with Smart Growth, its relationship to these earlier terms becomes clear. Most planners use Smart Growth to describe development that reverses the pattern of unsustainable and resource-consumptive, large-lot residential and commercial developments. It represents an effort to focus attention on development that provides balanced job and housing growth, minimizes the impact of impervious surfaces and development disturbance on the land, and pays for itself, rather than draining public resources. Consequently, it is a fundamental aspect of sound planning for future generations. That’s why it has become so popular and why it is an important aspect of comprehensive planning in Maryland.