Logic behind region plan can be baffling

Kai Hagen

October 13, 2005

After many months in the hands of the Frederick County Planning Commission, the controversial draft of the New Market Region Plan was handed to the Board of County Commissioners this summer.

Since the beginning, though it has largely fallen on deaf ears, many people have encouraged the county to apply common sense, and comply with the Frederick County Comprehensive Plan and Maryland law by gathering detailed information before making major decisions.

Now, after two more public hearings, commissioners are examining the plan in worksessions that have been largely devoted to critical concerns, such as schools, transportation and traffic, water and sewer, fire and rescue, parks and so on.

Finally, it appears a more serious and long overdue effort is emerging to gather and include detailed information and reasonable projections about these issues.

It's unfortunate that the county reached this point without a thorough effort to obtain good information and fully consider the serious impacts on the lives of those in the area (and everyone in the county).

But it did.

These are not matters that can be placed on the agenda for a morning meeting and finalized before lunch with a quick 3-2 vote.

At times, however, it has appeared that is exactly what Commissioner John Lovell (R) would do if it was up to him. Anyone who has watched the worksessions has seen a number of slight variations on the following theme:

Commissioners receive presentations from the Department of Public Works, or the Planning Department or Frederick County Public Schools, or the Division of Fire and Rescue Services, among others.

Some commissioners, most notably Commissioner Jan Gardner (D), follow up with insightful and important questions, and engage in a thoughtful dialogue about details that make a big difference.

The process reveals how inadequate the information has been, leading to further discussion about how best to obtain better information before moving forward.

Commissioner Lovell observes for a while, eventually jumping in with a consistent combination of misguided and often irrelevant personal quips and anecdotes, and a comment or two questioning the value of additional information, before expressing frustration that the board isn't ready and willing to support that part of the Planning Commission's recommendations and move on to the next item.

This pattern is evident whether the commissioners are taking a closer look at roads and traffic, water and sewer, fire and rescue, parks or schools.

For instance, when the subject was schools, I filled a few pages with just these sort of quotes.

During a conversation about optimum school size, Commissioner Lovell said, "We're worried about a certain size high school, then we turn around and send them to a university that has 20-some thousand people in it. So, I think it's just kind of an arbitrary concept that we've drawn here."

We learned that when he was going to school, "there were three rooms, with like 35 students to a room." That was to support the notion that "what we're doing today might not be what we're doing in the future. "

Back on the subject of school size, he noted that "kids leave a small school and go to a huge mall, and seem to function all right there."

A few similar comments later, he said that when kids go to college, "there's 40,000 or 20,000 a game, and they get through that. You go into a lecture hall with 150, 600 in it, or whatever, and everybody pays $30,000 a year for that and they think it's wonderful."

He added that "if you want to prepare them for college, let's get bigger schools, and that'll help prepare them, and they won't get as flustered when they go to the big school."

Due to limited space, you'll have to imagine how his side of the conversation goes when the subject is roads and traffic, etc.

Now things are going to get more interesting, as the last four worksessions have only been attended by four commissioners. Because of back surgery, Commissioner Bruce Reeder (D) has missed all of them, and in his absence, there haven't been three votes to block a more thorough process.

Will Lovell find two more votes to shut things down and push ahead with a plan that is so bad the Maryland Department of Planning has taken the unprecedented step of writing a letter to convey a detailed list of concerns and objections?

We'll find out soon.

The next worksessions on the matter, and the first with all five commissioners, are scheduled for Oct. 24 and 31.

To get in touch, e-mail Kai Hagen at