Planning Commission Chairman Takes Aim at Green Space

Gordge: The Manor Failed

BLYTHEWOOD – With the unrelenting drain on the Town’s finances by the park and Manor, much of Town Council’s recent day-long annual retreat was spent looking at ways they might bring additional revenue to the town. Last week The Voice reported on Council members’ various proposals for and angst over levying a property tax in the not too distant future. They also looked at other revenue sources such as economic development.

But before they got to that discussion, Planning Commission Chairman Malcolm Gordge made, at the request of Mayor J. Michael Ross, a presentation to Council outlining ways he felt the Town’s Comprehensive Plan (Comp Plan) and Master Plan stand in the way of economic development.

“While the Master Plan is a grand overview of where the town is going,” Gordge told The Voice, “the Comp Plan is the more detailed document that the Town is legally obliged to provide and update every five years. It provides guidelines for planning and zoning.”

While the Planning Commission has input into the Comp Plan, it has largely been updated over the last 10 to 15 years by Wayne Schuller with the Central Council of Governments (COG). Following the adoption of the Master Plan in 2009, the general plan going forward was to then update the Comp Plan to accommodate the Master Plan and make it happen.

With the five-year update due this year, Gordge was critical of the proposed amendments suggested by the COG, saying the goals and focus, which are in keeping with the goals and focus of the Master Plan, are heavily biased toward residential growth and environmental amenities and provide almost nothing to encourage and accommodate commerce and industry within the town. With diagrams and charts, he illustrated what he saw as the Comp Plan’s shortcomings, showing in percentages (below) how the Plan’s priorities for planning and zoning were detriments to the Town being able to attract industry and commerce.

• Environment – 35 percent

• Transportation – 27 percent

• Land Use – 13 percent

• Architecture – 13 percent

• Infrastructure – 7 percent

• Economic Development – 7 percent

“If you look at that, the environment is our most pressing need. Is that so?” Gordge asked, then answered, “I don’t think so.”

Gordge told Council he was “as much for green space as anyone,” but said he was not sure how practical it was to focus so much on ordinances that protect the environment. He advised Council members that, “The Town is bureaucratic by nature. It’s very complex with ordinances and regulations that are difficult to change.”

While Councilman Bob Massa agreed that economic development should be a top priority for the town, he also defended the importance of ordinances that protect the town’s environment.

“Those ordinances that are there to protect the environment do make it very bureaucratic. But there’s a reason why they are there to protect the environment –” Massa managed to get out before being interrupted by Gordge.

“But if we see that as an impediment to the progress we want to make,” Gordge said, “then we have to find a way to relax those ordinances to allow growth. Insufficient working capital is a reference to the fact that we don’t have any property tax millage, where we’re always struggling to find money for new projects.”

In his power point presentation, Gordge criticized the Comp Plan’s current vision statement, which emphasizes sustainable development. He was also critical of the proposed amendments to the Plan that focused on such things as requiring a ‘community focus’ to development, pedestrian sheds in strategic locations, open spaces, public spaces available 24/7, protected green spaces, preservation of local nature, conservation of resources and efficient water management.

Gordge proposed his own vision statement for both the Master Plan and Comp Plan, recommending “a modern infrastructure to accommodate visitors, commerce and a variety of industries with minimal impact upon the natural environment . . .”

After an exercise in which Gordge asked each Councilman to list what they saw as the town’s strengths (people, location, good demographic groups, etc.), weaknesses (Manor, lack of recreation, lack of tax base, etc.), opportunities (improve town’s appearance, recruit health care, improve website, plan for commercial growth and development, etc.), and threats (running out of money, large 18-wheelers continue to use our exit, businesses moving out of the area, etc.), Gordge summed up his own visions of these categories, lamenting what he saw as currently the Town’s greatest weakness, what was to be the crown jewel of the Master Plan – The Doko Manor and Park.

“We needed a success to stir commitment,” Gordge said. “Doko failed. That’s a strong statement.”

At the end of the day, Gordge asked Council members to each give their own prioritization to the goals of the Comp Plan. Councilmen Eddie Baughman, Bob Mangone and Massa ranked economic development as the top priority. Councilman Tom Utroska and Mayor Ross ranked it as second in importance. Utroska ranked land use as the top priority and Mayor J. Michael Ross saw infrastructure as the top priority.