Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) on Monday signed an executive order that is intended to curb sprawl and that could affect every facet of growth, from where schools are placed to which roads are built to whether rural landowners are permitted to develop their property.
Over vehement objections from Republicans, farmers and some city and county governments, O’Malley invoked a 37-year-old law allowing his administration to draft a master plan for Maryland development.
To enforce the guidelines, O’Malley said his administration in coming years would leverage billions of dollars in annual state aid. Local governments that encourage dense development in existing towns and cities will be rewarded with continued funding while jurisdictions that do not limit development of farmland and open space may see their state aid reduced.
For O’Malley, the executive order amounts to a win in a policy area where a long list of Maryland Democratic governors before him have come up short. But by excluding the General Assembly from holding hearings or voting on the plan, he has attracted criticism from both sides of the aisle.
“At the heart of this is the biggest challenge that we face in our species,” O’Malley said at a statehouse news conference. “We have seen the population of this planet double in the last 40 years, the fastest doubling we have ever seen.
“There’s a reason no other state has done this: It’s not an easy conversation and it involves a lot of . . . reenvisioning about the sort of future we want to create,” O’Malley said.
Senate Republican leader E.J. Pipkin (Queen Anne’s), who has called the governor’s plan tantamount to a war on rural Maryland, characterized Monday’s order as an “unprecedented taking” of rural Marylanders’ property rights and a transparent attempt for the termed-out governor to burnish his environmental credentials for a political life after Annapolis.
“What the governor did is the height of arrogance,” Pipkin said. “We have never seen this in the state of Maryland. We have never had an executive order of this significance without a review by the General Assembly. . . . It’s all part of his national agenda to boost his personal [profile].”
O’Malley rebuffed such attacks, saying the plan will allow future generations to enjoy the same Eastern Shore, western mountains and farmland that Marylanders have today. The guideline is “not a way for the state to take away local planning and zoning prerogatives,” he said.
O’Malley tried to make light of accusations launched by conservative commentators and some tea party Republicans in the state that the effort, which he has dubbed Plan Maryland, is an offshoot of a master plan espoused by the United Nations.
This is “not part of a secret U.N. plan,” O’Malley said to some laughter from his staff and supporters, “nor do I have a transistor planted in the back of my head that is telling me from a remote planet to do this, nor does Kim Jong Il any longer tell me that this is necessary. This is something we do because of the shared reality that we have.”
But critics contend the full intent and impact of Plan Maryland cannot yet be known.
As approved Monday by O’Malley, the plan lacks criteria for evaluating whether some areas should be marked for development or open space, said Leslie Knapp, associate director of the Maryland Association of Counties.
The plan also has the potential to consolidate an extraordinary amount of power in a “subcabinet” of state officials to evaluate statewide land use policy, he said.
“We have ongoing, strong concerns,” Knapp said, adding that the counties association, historically one of the most powerful lobbying organizations in Annapolis, would “consider” supporting legislation that may address the group’s concern about the plan when the General Assembly reconvenes next year.