Open Letter to Councilwoman Williams on Amendment #4 by Dan Watson

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Dear Ms. Williams.:

Near the close of business on Friday a new proposed amendment concerning Sewer and Rezoning showed up on the County website, authored by you.   Apparently you intend to introduce it on Tuesday—it could even be voted on that evening!  (I’ve been told though that you intend to wait till the first meeting in September for the final vote).  Nevertheless, you closed the public hearing on Bill 1401 and its amendments and have confirmed to me that there will be no public discussion of your new amendment in any event.  I find that troubling.

As late as our meeting in your office on Wednesday afternoon you and Chuck Callahan remained firmly opposed to Amendment 4 introduced weeks ago by Ms. Price and designed to break the link between sewer extensions and sprawl.  Now, suddenly, you draft an amendment that superficially would appear to some people to do the same thing? It is said “You can fool all of the people some of the time…” but this is not likely one of those situations.

Your new amendment, designed to bump aside Amendment #4, is a dodge.  It does not increase citizens’ protection at all, nor eliminate the dangerous ambiguity concerning new sewer justifying sprawl nearly as well as the original.  I earnestly urge that you withdraw this bit of legislation. If you (and Messrs.’. Pack and Callahan) truly want to assure that new sewer lines, in and of themselves, don’t trigger development inconsistent with the Comp Plan (which is what you all said last winter), you need only vote for Amendment #4.

I can see two possible reasons you thought it a good idea to knock out Amendment #4, neither admirable:

First, this being an election year, it is possible you simply want to have your name appended to this universally popular idea, rather than Ms. Price being identified with it.   (An episode from Mean Girls?) And maybe you mistakenly believe your alternative language, which seems generally on point, really does add something and is just as good.

The less benign, but I fear correct, reason is that even in the face of the public’s demand that ambiguity about sewers and sprawl be excised once and for all, you want to leave some little bit of wiggle room, however slight, in the zoning code.  Why? I don’t believe it’s because of some malevolent plot to spring a big project on us tomorrow. Rather, I believe you don’t really, deep down, believe in the Comp Plan, and a pro-development mindset is part of your makeup. Knowing, as we all do, that sewer is the magic key to unleashing development, it appears you just hate to see the door sealed shut—which Amendment #4 (with a corresponding Comp Plan amendment to come) will accomplish.

Here’s the difference between Amendment 4 and your language

The Price version tracks verbatim the exact words (highlighted here) that comprise the standard for zoning change that appear several lines above, so there can be no misunderstanding:  “Entitlement to connect to public sewer shall not alone be sufficient to support a finding of substantial change in the character of the neighborhood or community where the property is located….”  That is what needs to be unambiguous.

Here is the wording you propose instead (emphasis supplied):  “Nor should an improvement in water and sewage facilities, standing alone, be taken as a change of conditions affecting the neighborhood.”   Similar idea no doubt….but developers have plenty of smart lawyers willing to argue that “improvements” surely doesn’t mean a whole new line, and “conditions affecting” doesn’t refer to “character.”  Would those arguments win? Who knows…. but why even open it up?

Your version is not even designed to address arguable ambiguity within our Comp Plan and zoning code (the point!), but only to echo for some reason one line of dictum on the topic found in a 1968 Maryland court case.  (I assume since you are a real estate lawyer yourself, you were able to do an online keyword search to find this?)

As you know (but others may not), to the extent the cited cases are precedent, they already apply to Talbot County, and reciting a sentence changes nothing.  Moreover, there appears no conflict between that line and our existing code—and certainly not once Amendment #4 is enacted. To my mind, claiming that we must echo this sentence in our code instead of eliminating worrisome ambiguity is just a diversion designed to scuttle Amendment 4.

Incidentally, I read both of the court opinions that you claim are so important here.  Having worked in real estate in Baltimore and Howard Counties in the ‘60s, I know the actual properties very well, knew some of the characters mentioned, and recall that corrupt era of rezoning and big money development when Dale Anderson and Joe Alton and Spiro Agnew called the shots on zoning.  If you think it could never happen here, think again. These cases illustrate why we must be vigilant about our Comp Plan, and why you should enact Amendment #4 now.

We, the citizens and voters of Talbot County, want clarity, not trickery.  Simply pass Amendment 4 and be done with it.

Sincerely,

Dan Watson

 

Letters to Editor

  1. Sarah & Victoria Pagano says:

    Thanks Dan, and we couldn’t agree more. My sister and I are 15 and 17 years old, respectively, and having come from New Jersey, where irreparable sprawl has devastated many wonderful communities, your analysis is spot on. Once developers take hold, the development can not be undone. All homeowners and councilmen and councilwomen are merely custodians for future generations of this idyllic area known as Maryland’s Eastern Shore. We’re counting on you to not ruin a great thing!

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