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Friday, October 16, 2009

Will Recent City of Frederick Annexations Impact City Election?

George Wenschhof

Doubtful, would be my response to the headline question. The apathy exhibited by the city voters with their low voter turnout combined with a deafening silence in campaigning by any of the mayoral or alderman candidates would indicate the current annexation debate will not impact the November 3 election. However, this is an important issue and city voters and their opinions should be heard.

Two northern farms (Thatcher and Crum) along with the Summers farm on the west side were approved for annexation by the mayor and board with promises of a increase of jobs, higher taxation revenues which are needed along with other promises from developers to sweeten the pot.

Frederick County Commissioners have unanimously indicated they will vote to deny the annexations after seeing the results of the recent drive to gather enough signatures (20% of city registered voters) to force the annexation decision to a referendum by city voters. The deadline for obtaining the needed signatures is Sunday. If successful, the signatures would still need to withstand scrutiny and verification by, I am assuming, the City Board of Elections. If the petition for referendum fails or an actual referendum is unsuccessful in reversing the mayor and board decision to annex the three farms, the county vote to deny will prohibit development for five years.

Much has been said about the escalating of this issue by the city and county officials, speculating much of the argument surrounds "turf" battles. However, the annexation process has been in place for years for the purpose of creating some checks and balances on something as important as the incorporation of property within a municipal limits and the impact of it's subsequent development.

The review by state agencies is also part of the process and not a new addition or personal vendetta on their part against the city or the county when their comments are added to the record.

What does change over time is the individuals who are the city and county elected officials. Their opinions certainly impact on decisions such as annexations and have been taken into account when annexation requests were made over the years.

As one who has worked in the real estate development field in the past, I witnessed many different county boards of commissioners and various municipal officials go through the annexation approval process on numerous occasions.

One paramount and pivotal review which is always done is does the land in question fall withing the growth boundaries previously agreed upon by the county and municipality and is the planned development consistent with the planned zoning of the property. In this case, the three city annexations do fall within the comprehensively planned growth areas.

A short look back in time shows the city comprehensive plan update was approved during the last months in the Jennifer Dougherty (D) administration. Many at the time said the process was rushed inferring Dougherty knew she had the favorable aldermen votes to pass the proposed update.

Nonetheless, it did pass and the county commissioners did not object to this city comprehensive plan update. Today, those in favor of the three approved city annexations point this out and ask "why are the county commissioners objecting now?".

A good question, yet the planned growth area does not appear to be the question by the current county board of commissioners. The concerns I have read and heard after having spoken to Board President Jan Gardner and Commissioner Kai Hagen are more development detail oriented.

Gardner is concerned with how school capacity is being calculated and how is the need for a new school is being addressed. Hagen correctly points out the northern annexations do not spell out any agreement with the county to provide needed sewer to the property; without such agreement development will not occur. They also feel the manner to be utilized to mitigate the traffic issues on U.S. 15 are not clearly spelled out. In addition, they had questions surrounding fire and emergency rescue services available for the area.

The petition drive to move the city approval of the annexations is the first time in my recollection ever being done. However, again the law provides for a 45 day period following an approval of an annexation for a petition to take place.

Instead of recognizing this is an approved part of the approval process, charges and counter charges have transpired among some voters. The city and county electeds along with even former city mayors have also weighed in on with their views on the annexations, communicating with voters through letters, web pages and even a video with their position.

The recent passage by the county commissioners 4-1 of a resolution to require a referendum by the residents of the annexed properties is a right by law they have. However, in this case with reportedly only owners and a few tenants residing on the properties, this was indeed an unnecessary move by the commissioners. The vote was more of a tweak of the city, resulting in the minor cost for a very small special referendum election but what will do little else in regard to the outcome of the development of the annexed properties.

This section of the law is there in the case of larger subdivisions being annexed into a municipality so as to get feedback from those who would be affected. An example would be the Clover Hill subdivisions adjacent to the city.

Nonetheless, many of the questions being asked by county commissioners are important. Municipal authority is one I will always support. Yet, today the need to plan and cooperate on a regional basis is more important than ever.

The idea of comprehensive plans for municipalities and counties has been around for quite some time as a means to help plan for future growth and the impact that it has. Perhaps, it is time to review the current process, recognizing the impacts of growth now have effects outside of the city and county and often times even the state in which they are planned. Developing regional planning models for water, sewer, roads and transportation, seems to be worthy of serious consideration by all elected officials.

Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley does have some effort underway in the state as they recognize the need to work closely with neighboring states of Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia and the District of Columbia.

While it is doubtful the recent annexation of three farms into The City of Frederick will impact the election, I do hope the incoming mayor and board recognize the importance of regional planning. Many issues remain to be resolved before development can take place on these properties and cooperation with county elected officials will be needed in order to move forward.

If the petition drive fails and the county commissioners vote to deny the city annexations as they have promised, in effect, a five year moratorium will be put on the development of these properties. As commissioner Hagen correctly points out, if the city and county can not reach an agreement on the provision of sewer to the two northern annexations, development will not occur on those properties.

I would then suspect this would all result in a bigger impact on the 2010 county commissioner election. I would anticipate some candidates backed by pro-grow entities to promise to overturn the previous county board decision and to promise to reach agreement on the extension of sewer services.

Stay Tuned.


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