Comprehensive Plan: Citizens shape county’s future

HURLOCK — At long last the 1996 Dorchester County Comprehensive Plan is being revised and the County Council promises transparency in the process. Most elected officials hear complaints and sometimes they nod, smile, and promise action. In the case of the current revision the promise is public input and it looks like they are keeping their word.

The county hired AECOM consultants to help the county update its Comprehensive Plan.

Chris Rogers, AICP, AECOM’s principal planner, described the first of three Open Houses held for public information and input. Several stations invited visitors to review the various elements of the Plan and offer feedback.

Mr. Rogers explained that in Maryland the plans “are really driven by the planning commissions so we’ll be working very closely with the planning department and the staff over the next several months to formulate the plan.” The County Council reviews various elements and offers feedback for a process that is anticipated to take two years. “Now, they’re all interrelated,” he said, “but we wanted to get bits and pieces of the plan to them so we can move along instead of hitting them with one big draft at the end.” Meetings will be open for public comment. “The county has directed us to make sure that we have a very proactive process and try to get public input.”

Four members of the seven member planning commission, appointed by the County Council, attended the July 24 Open House to answer questions and explain what their volunteer posts entail. Ralph Lewis, Jerry Burroughs, Bill Giese, and Jeff King, meet monthly with the other three commissioners: Chairman Robert Hanson, vice chair Laura Layton, and Mary Losty.

Mr. Giese explained, “We review certain plans that come in and especially site plans and design on the larger projects. Larger projects come before us if there is a bridge or large developments. The staff takes care of smaller projects.”

He added, “We’re way behind because the old plan is from ’96. We updated part of it seven or eight years ago. It’s caused some issues over the years not having an updated plan because obviously things change. The biggest thing was the 3,000 acre Blackwater Resort project proposed south of Cambridge.” Mr. Giese said the old plan did not address that issue at all. “The comp plan didn’t address that at all. Now the big issue is solar farms. The comp plan doesn’t address that either.” He said nobody is overseeing it so it is done on a case-by-case basis.
Mr. Burroughs said with the new plan “we’ll be able to address solar farms, landscaping, and locations for them since some locations are questionable.”

“It’s the hot issue right now,” noted Mr. Lewis.

The group discussed an early solar project in Bucktown they called “a learning curve.”

“That was our first one,” said Mr. Giese, “and we just approved a second one but haven’t done the site planning yet. Mr. Burroughs said, “The property owners do the solar field, design and they come to us for guidance of what the zoning law says. It’s not that easy to just come in and say ‘here’s the plan.’ We have to think about design, reflections, and security. That is all that is part of it.”

The commission addresses concerns of adjacent landowners, screening, and what will happen to the land when the agreed term concludes – the decommissioning. Each site is bonded so it can be re-commissioned after 20 or 30 years to ensure it returns to its original condition.
Mr. King explained, “I may not be here in 30 years but my kids and grandkids will be. We have to look out for them and not leave any messes for them.”

Mr. Giese agreed. “The big issue is decommissioning. We set it up and say it’s going to cost this much today but think 30 years from now and you have to think about escalating costs.” The other big issue for the lower part of the county is sea level change. Mr. Giese said “In 30 years this county is not going to look the same.”

Commissioners noted that many citizens complain but do not show up for meetings. The Dorchester County Planning Commission meets at noon on the first Wednesday of each month in room 110 of the County Office Bldg.

They all agreed they want fresh ideas and opinions. The public can also comment on the planning department website or Facebook page. Not contributing means some potentially great ideas will never be heard. So, like a wedding, the public is invited to “speak now or forever hold their peace.”

Susan Bautz is a freelance writer for the Dorchester Banner.

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