It’s great to see Spy readers up in arms about the development at Lakeside, but this is nothing new. There have always been plenty of naysayers, bystanders, and active opponents of this huge development folly ( all bristling with outrage and fury).
For the many of us that have hung in there, we donated thousands of volunteer hours given to steer this tawdry unimaginative, out-of-character development to a better place, to no avail. Talbot County Planning and Zoning, through its three different Planning directors, all caught in the project crossfire, all horrified by the County Council’s behavior and then ultimately resigned, showing the pressure and disrespect for planners in the process.
The Council was always ending in the corner, protecting the profit motive of the landholders and the developers, which would profit from development, and denied any power to the controlling document that was the Comprehensive Plan. For the most part, The Talbot Council has been hugely unresponsive, unhelpful, caught like a deer in the headlights, indecisive between pro and anti-development forces, and by and large, very unaccommodating to low-end development despite the best intentions of the Comp plan, it was easily to route the interests of the people in favor of the almighty dollar.
And so this goes deeper into the question about who is in control, why land owners’ rights are more important than democratic plans adopted by elected officials, and why elected officials who vote against the documents and citizenry they have pledged to protect can so easily avoid legal accountability.
I, for one, as a dedicated urbanist and local architect who has tried to practice good design, amplify the character of the Chesapeake, always promote historic preservation, and sell history as a draw for local business, have fought this dreaded development. It is located in my own neighborhood, no far from where I live, and it’s a reminder of what unregulated profit-hungry developers do when lawyers yield the power, not planners, that should be in control and refuse these kinds of projects.
My neighbors have endeavored since the project’s original inception in 2006 and have tried to steer it in a better direction, never saying no, just saying give us a better product, now for almost twenty years. I have to admit that, sadly, we have lost. But as a lesson in bad land management, this debacle should not go unheeded, it should stand as a lesson to be learned; we could rise from these ashes and do better. Can we all agree it has been a horrible mistake? I can think of only one person that thinks it isn’t and many that have profited greatly from the mistake.
Constructive efforts to shape development in Maryland have always failed precisely because the zoning and land ceding system in an “Annexation” request in Maryland is so terribly flawed against the County in favor of the Towns and Cities.
The origins of this planning problem go way back to Britain and the land grant process, where the original land grants, many of them from Lord Calvert, gave counties most of the control. In open rebellion after much bad history with Britain and its merchant class, later as colonial cities that sprang up on the Eastern Shore were Chartered (or incorporated), Towns and cities were hoping not to repeat the mistakes of the past.
Unfortunately, this was also an overcorrection and an equally bad mistake. With the Cities now having more power to grow larger than the Counties to control them, the Counties were powerless to resist growth. This condition still exists to this day; the Maryland Municipal League fights tooth and nail Maryland leadership and is dead set on keeping things that way. The cities will always win the conflict in an Annexation. This has dreadful consequences and did so in Trappe.
Trappe is actually an incorporated town, which means it has its own planning and zoning, its own city administration, and its own world that it can manipulate as it likes. In the 2006 annexation of some 900 acres, the County was again caught flat-footed in this transfer, made the transfer because it had to, but then revised its comp plans ( too late) to correct its mistakes. So while the developer took the decade off and more or less vanished between 2008 and 2017, where we all thought he had gone elsewhere, but no, he came back! He contested he had been given approval for a wastewater system when he had not, claimed he had approval for the whole 2501 units when he did not, and with skillful misdirections from lawyers, bluffed his way back into the game of project approval, all catching poor Talbot county off guard. This ruse should have been stopped right then and there, but no, it actually worked!
While this detail might all seem trivial, it is not. In an annexation request made by a city to the County, the County has very little power to resist the request. It must cede the property, but it leaves a gaping hole open to interpretation. The Annexation must follow the comprehensive plan and must comply with the comprehensive sewer and water plan the County is legally bound to create. Herein lies the problem, Talbot had not updated their wastewater “tier plan,” so there was confusion in the application process and, ultimately, a train wreck of sorts.
In this case, Talbot updated their overall comprehensive plan but not their comprehensive sewer and water plan, and why not, you’d ask? Because it provided a loophole. Here the developer was allowed to slip between dimensions to say he had the rights to develop when clearly the main comp plan said he did not. So it was a well-orchestrated wreck. I suspect this; I don’t know this.
In summary, all this extraordinary effort to arrest or redefine the development was pretty much undone by the sloppy administering of the comprehensive sewer and water plan by the County Engineer. One has to ask that if this one small loophole ( an unforced error) allowed such a repugnant development to occur, there has to be something very wrong with the process. And that is proven true; Comprehensive plans are no match for skillful or devious developers and clandestine lawyers. A better system is badly needed, but take heart, not all is lost; we are only forty years behind the times in the planning world; some consolation.
We tried our Darndest to fight Trappe’s Levittown
We need to tell the story through chapters of this fateful episode of Government dysfunction.
Chapter One: In the beginning, our neighborhood came together to form a community organization called “Friends of Trappe” in the early days of 2006, later known as “The Downstream Alliance” 2018, trying to slow and make the County rethink the Trappe development. People with strong legal standing and adjacent historic properties, after exhaustive testimony, opinions were overridden and executed with disregard by the County County. Early on, our local neighborhood team and the “friends of Trappe” tried desperately to solicit a local vote via an internal town voter referendum ( a way for townspeople to weigh in on just one topic, the Lakeside project) to slow the progress. This effort failed because the developer and his attorneys promised local grocery stores to be built; the only reason locals were in favor of the project ( people were tired of driving to Easton for necessities). Later, his developer offer was rescinded. Another feigned promise was broken by a developer, not that surprising actually, but a fatal mistake for a small, unsophisticated town, trusting a developer’s word.
Chapter Two: After many, many meetings with MDE ( Maryland Department of Environment) where our group, backed by local environmental groups, presented evidence to MDE that the spray irrigation septic system was bound to fail ( we actually cited places where MDE violated their own policy) we cited evidence of failed system design, as many in the County were already doing ( In Wye, St Michaels, all were doomed to a very short and polluted lifespan).
Despite evidence that spray irrigation systems were underperforming, the MDE ( in their infinite wisdom) increased the capacity requirements of these spray systems and literally doomed the systems to failure. Their caution actually caused the failure, showing that their expertise needed to be questioned. This was the case in Wye, a system that the County had to bail out the developer who had long since departed. We tried to convince the developer to export Lakeside effluent to Easton or Cambridge, but none were publicly acknowledged despite the fact that the Town of Easton had plant capacity.
Chapter Three: Then, We tried through the Talbot County Public Works advisory committee to reject the permit application; this professional Advisory Board all voted unanimously to block the Lakeside application but was later overruled by the Council that refused to take their own Committee’s professional advice. You can’t make this stuff up! Dysfunctional government is nothing new, but the County just attained new heights. Nothing we tried worked.
Chapter Four: Then the Talbot Integrity Project ( TIP) emerged, a strong and very experienced leader, and we thought we had a stand against the developer, but when all was balanced on the campaign for Council and their respective pro or con votes, once elected candidates now Councilmen reversed course, dooming the Lakeside resistance. TIP sued in Circuit Court, and amazingly the decision was thrown out; local judges in Circuit Court rejected our citizen pleas. Lakeside has proven to be unbeatable and unstoppable by normal channels.
Lessons learned: The state MDE administrators for wastewater never saw a development they could not approve. And the comprehensive plan that was lovingly created to deal with this threat of unrestrained growth that developments like Lakeside posed proved to be no match for legal maneuvering. And what exactly did we learn? We learned our approach using normal channels in zoning ordinance wasn’t working; the Town and County had no tools to do the job to guide development. We all learned ( cynically) that planning is not an imaginative exercise for lawyers; it is fraught with problems, does not understand in the least about community character, and ultimately is a way for lawyers to bill by the hour and have little care for the results, sometimes laugh at the stupidity of its citizens for being so easily conned. Can we at least earn not to trust lawyers to do the business of planning or zoning? Can we leave that to planners, please?
Failure of Imagination:
The question we pose here and now is this; why make a big deal out of crafting skillful comprehensive plans ( wordsmithing ad nausea) if they simply don’t work to control and regulate growth, and if developers can literally drive a truck through the regulations, can find ways to taint the Council and to overrule public opinion, why do we insist that this is all we have to shape development? It’s not! Much of the problem is that we are stuck with a system that doesn’t work, but most are afraid to try another that would require learning how to use it!
Besides, Is it right to leave the magnitude of the decision up for the Town or City Council to decide? Does anyone in Council have any academic background in Planning? Do they think they can solve problems with local expertise, namely lawyers? Do they know how other areas have solved their growth problems? Are they interested enough to even look? Do they listen to their planners more than they listen to their constituents? Should we be leaving these decisions to planners in our area who haven’t been schooled in modern development warfare?
Answers, answers ….yes, despite a huge majority percent of community pushback, opinions are all against the large unbounded development; Lakeside still survives, if not legally, through sheer persistence. The tools to shape good development are not currently in our grasp. So why do we bother with bolstering a failed system? We don’t want to recognize this because we don’t have other tools to replace the ones that aren’t working.
Is this not a failure of imagination? Is it really a fight to the death at the end after all the big decisions about where, when, how big, and how much has already been made? Are we getting the order of this all wrong? Shouldn’t this big a problem be solved on the front end, not the back end, when it’s too late to make a difference, when money and effort have been expended, and heels are dug in? This sounds e bit like good national diplomacy that could avert warfare; we know this works or can work in skillful diplomatic hands. The unequivocal answer is yes, it can and should be solved at the beginning, not in the end, and developers go way too far and way too fast before people know what they are doing. The community needs better design guardrails upfront.
Pattern Books as a solution:
The same developer, Rauch Corp, came in and tried the same shenanigans in Denton, Maryland, but they underestimated a very sharp shrewd town planner who, after seeing the plan for the Ruach project, applied for twin grants and hired a nationally prominent planning firm “Urban Design Associates” from Pittsburgh, to do a better development plan. Wisely the Planner in Denton did not fight the project but struggled mightily to reshape it. And this is exactly what needs to happen in Lakeside and in all developments in the region. We have to recognize growth is coming to the shore; we simply have to have the smarts to shape it, not stop it, and if we set the development bar high enough, a lot of the mediocre shlock will go elsewhere.
It’s a proven fact; stepping up the regulations in the front end means you have fewer battles to wage in the back end. The funny thing is, something you wouldn’t expect, that developers actually want these regulations; they know what to expect, and they don’t have to fight for every inch because it’s spelled out for them what they can do if they follow the guidelines. People want this because they can reasonably safeguard their property within the towns they love. One added advantage is that these new three-dimensionally regulated planning guidelines, or form-based zoning regulations, are legally enforceable; they are not optional; they are law. No way to dodge them. This works for developers and for citizens; it’s no longer a game of who you know that you can bend to your will.
The project that emerged from the Denton Experience was “the Denton Pattern Book,” which was a blueprint or “template” for how Eastern Shore towns should grow and how they can retain their character without fighting without confrontation. The beauty of these Pattern books is they lay down the law that lawyers, with only pretend experience in planning, have no idea how to write and are clueless about new form-based zoning regulations. In a way, Denton walked into the next millennium by hiring real Urban design professionals ( yes, we have urban spaces in towns) and left behind a strong template for the growth of any city or town to use free of charge.
My point is that the failure of imagination, the failure to grasp the idea that there are other ways, other planning tools to get what your town wants and needs are out there, just look around, and don’t for a minute assume that you have no options. You have one that is free right in your own backyard that is working in Denton. One problem is new systems require learning how to use them, but the stakes are high here and now; getting better form-based zoning planning tools is the future.
And… If you don’t care enough to research this, to look for other answers, to encourage your county and city planners to adopt these codes, then you deserve the ugly conundrum you will face when developers turn this into a stark profit-driven landscape; remember, New Jersey used to be beautiful too. The goose that laid the golden egg sometimes never realizes it’s gold.
BTW: Urban Design Associates designed Easton Village, which you will have to admit is another universe distant from Lakeside.
LINKS: and required research: Urban Design Associates, Denton Pattern Book ….This is the town website; you’ll have to claw through to find the Denton pattern book reference.
This is for the Urban Design Associates website and the host of successful pattern books they have published and areas they have saved.
Jay Corvan is a Talbot County architect who specializes in historic work and commercial work, imaginative infill buildings that play on local architectural patterns.