WORTON — A public forum Wednesday, July 27 drew about 80 residents to offer comments on the ongoing update of the Kent County Comprehensive Plan.
The forum, at Kent County High School, was the first formal opportunity for residents to weigh in on the comprehensive plan, which lays out the broad principles of planning and zoning in the county. By state law, the plan must be updated every 10 years. Kent County’s plan was last updated in 2006.
The session began with a greeting by William Sutton, vice chairman of the Planning Commission. Amy Moredock, county director of planning, housing and zoning, and consultant Sandy Coyman of Earth Data then outlined the agenda and goals for the meeting.
Moredock introduced the Planning Commission members who will be crafting the new version of the plan. The whole commission was present except for Chairman Elizabeth Morris, who had a family commitment.
Coyman gave an overview of the plan’s objectives, which he described as a way to record and document the community’s current and future needs. The planners are working to identify goals and strategies to implement them, he said. The county’s zoning ordinance and land use ordinances are the tools that put the comprehensive plan’s goals into effect.
Coyman also identified trends the plan should address. Among them is how the county, like the nation as a whole, is becoming older and more diverse. Kent County is growing older faster than Maryland as a whole, he said.
Economically, automation has increased manufacturing productivity while reducing the number of jobs. The effects of globalization and the greater interconnectivity of modern media are evident in the community. Also, Kent County is seeing a trend toward second homes whose owners live elsewhere, often in nearby cities. Meanwhile, the county’s infrastructure is aging, Coyman said, pointing to the Chester River bridge as an example.
Despite these trends, Coyman said no radical changes in the plan are needed. “It’s strong to begin with,” he said.
The evening’s agenda focused on three sections of the plan: towns and villages, countryside and the economy. Attendees were divided into three groups and went to different classrooms to hear details of the three elements and give their comments, either vocally or in writing.
Moredock presented the town and village draft, which she said has the most changes of any of the draft elements so far. The county’s policy, a reflection of Maryland’s Smart Growth policy, is to direct growth toward already developed areas, she said. The county’s incorporated towns are required to include a municipal growth element in their own comprehensive plans, and to designate clear growth areas with definite boundaries, she said.
Nancy Robson, a Galena resident, asked what can be done if a town’s zoning ordinance is in conflict with the comprehensive plan.
“That’s not supposed to happen,” Moredock said. She said the plan and ordinances have “nuances and interpretations” that can lead to differences of opinion on specific problems. She said the Planning Commission is the arbiter of what is allowable, with the land use and zoning ordinances as the specific tools. “The comprehensive plan is not that specific,” she said. She said the draft plan will be sent to the towns for their comments.
“Send it to Galena soon,” Robson said.
Community Planner Katrina Tucker led the discussion of the countryside element. She said a main goal of the element is to preserve agriculture as a viable contributor to the county’s economy. One of the changes is a more definite set of criteria for provision of public water and sewer to unincorporated areas, which the 2006 plan says should be only for “public health emergencies.”
Residents commented that the plan needs to recognize the changing nature of agriculture, with such uses as vineyards and organic foods becoming more widespread. The restrictions on what size lots can be subdivided from existing farms, originally intended to deter development in agricultural areas, work against these less traditional kinds of farming, which may allow younger farmers to find their way into business by working smaller plots, several residents said.
There was discussion of what can be done to deter conversion of farmland to utility-scale wind and solar installations. Here, Tucker said, the county may not be able to prevent the state from overriding local land use ordinances. While the county can state that farming is the preferred land use, it can’t change state law, she said.
Environmental Planner Stephanie Jones presented the economic section of the draft, which generated considerable discussion.
Charles “Chip” MacLeod raised the issue of the U.S. Route 301 corridor through the county, which has been designated as an industrial and commercial growth area. MacLeod said improvements on the Delaware section of the road will result in more traffic along the corridor, which will lead to “opportunities we can’t miss” for economic growth. He said the county must be proactive in attracting businesses to that corridor. “It needs to be our number one priority,” he said.
Another resident said Queen Anne’s County is already making plans for the increased traffic and possible economic impact. He said the perception there is that “Kent County won’t do anything.”
Ed Birkmire of the Planning Commission said the Route 301 corridor is already designated as a priority area for commercial and industrial development.
Another resident said people fear that the Route 301 corridor will become “like Delaware,” referring to the intensive development near Middletown. He said the plan needs to incentivize “the Kent County way of life” for that area, “the kind of development we want.”
Kentmore Park resident Bob Kramer said the county’s fiber internet project could have a major impact on the economy, encouraging telecommuting and cottage industry. He said many of the county’s retirees would be open to doing part-time work online. “We really need to capitalize on it,” he said.
“The rules need to catch up to the technology,” Birkmire said.
Elizabeth Watson, a planner who has worked with Stories of the Chesapeake Heritage Area, said the plan should emphasize the relationship between education and economic development. “We need to invest in the school system to bring in millennials,” she said.
There will be two more public forums on other elements of the plan at dates to be determined, Coyman said. Also, the Planning Commission work sessions on the update, the first Wednesday of each month at 400 High St., are open to the public. The plan will be submitted to the state planning office and to the incorporated towns for their comments before a public hearing by the county commissioners, who will have the final vote on its adoption.
The draft elements to date along with other information on the comprehensive plan update are available on the planning department section of the Kent County government website, www.kentcounty.com. The site includes a survey on residents’ perceptions of the county.