As State Planners Work to Help Their Local Counterparts, Communication Is Key

By B.J. Darden

In a statewide effort to enhance services and create effective state and local planning, the Maryland Planning Commissioners Association (MPCA) hosted a focus group meeting in Salisbury last week with city planners and zoning appeals members from the Eastern Shore.

The focus group meeting is part of a larger MPCA outreach project that began in June, which seeks to listen to stakeholders so that Maryland’s planning community can best meet the needs of local jurisdictions.

“They were sharing similar concerns and similar solutions that other staff members and planners were having in local communities,” said Joe Griffiths, a local assistance and planning manager for the Maryland Department of Planning.

The Planning Department oversees the work of MPCA, which meets quarterly and is governed by a board made up of representatives from each county in Maryland.  

Griffiths, who hosted the meeting, asked attendees and local planners about their concerns with their jurisdictions and what steps the state could take to better help localities.

Communication was one major concern among local city planners.

“Isolation injures the process,” said Mary Jane Marine, a code enforcement officer for Vienna and a former zoning administrator for Wicomico County. “We’re not looking to the higher-up state level for input. For communication at the local level, the regional office is the best resource.”

Griffiths and Regional Planning Director Tracy Gordy took notes and suggestions from the focus group discussion panel throughout the meeting.

“There’s a great deal of need, especially in our municipalities, because most of our municipalities do not have formal planning staff so they do rely on the state for technical assistance,” Gordy said.

Many people at the meeting expressed concern over the dwindling role that city planners are playing across the Lower Eastern Shore. Many of the city planners said that their city planning committees would sometimes go weeks without meeting due to the lack of activity in the region.

“We haven’t seen a major subdivision on the Lower Eastern Shore in five years,” Gordy said.

“In reality, we have about one to two cases to review per month, and those usually have to do with signs,” said Marine. “You can’t motivate people who don’t want to be motivated.”

Gordy said the level of development activity has significantly dropped off since the downturn of the economy, and that local officials are focused on finding grant and funding opportunities to subsidize the projects that local municipalities need. Griffiths said the goal of the Maryland Department of Planning right now is outreach.

“We want to come out to communities and hear not only what kind of technical assistance we can provide, but how we can communicate better too,” Griffiths said.

The MPCA will continue to host focus group discussions in local jurisdictions across the state through August. The meetings are from 5-7 p.m.

On Tuesday, the commission will be at the Allegany College Continuing Education Building, at 12401 Willowbrook Rd. in Cumberland.

On July 26, the meeting will be at the Baltimore County Center for Maryland Agriculture, at 1114 Shawan Rd. in Cockeysville.

On Aug. 1, the commission will meet at the Montgomery County Planning Board office at 8787 Georgia Ave. in Silver Spring.

And on Aug. 8, the meeting will be at the Queen Anne’s County Planning and Zoning headquarters at 110 Vincit St. in Centreville.

To learn more, Griffiths can be reached at 410-767-4553 or joseph.griffiths@maryland.gov.

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