The Boundary Issue Is Back
1/18 Focus Groups
Thanks to everyone who attended the Planning Commission’s 1/18 “Listening Session.” After a brief summary of the Sugarloaf Overlay District (which has been remanded to the Planning Commission by the County Council), those in attendance broke into small, mixed focus groups for discussion. The groups were moderated by county planning staff and each group was attended by at least one Commissioner. Both Sugarloaf Plan supporters and opponents were divided among the groups. Participants in the focus groups repeated many of the same points made during the past two years of public comment, but we learned a few things that will help us direct our efforts going forward.
What We Learned
Developer Tom Natelli suggested that the Sugarloaf Treasured Landscape Management Plan is in conflict with the I-270 Corridor Plan (which is on the county’s 2023-24 schedule for consideration), and he wondered if perhaps the Sugarloaf Overlay decision should be delayed until the I-270 Corridor Plan is done, or at least, they should be done together. The Sugarloaf Overlay will be “the teeth” of Sugarloaf Plan, already approved by the County Council. The Plan includes all of the area between I-270 and the Monocacy River. If the "treasured landscape” is to be preserved, the Plan’s Overlay District must cover this entire Plan area. In contrast, the I-270 Corridor Plan will be a development plan, not a preservation plan. Mr. Natelli’s suggestion reveals a strategy that would use the land planning process to prioritize development interests over preservation interests within the Sugarloaf Plan area. Sugarloaf Alliance supports completing the Overlay District approval process prior to beginning consideration of the I-270 Corridor Plan,
Mr. Natelli, Mr. Soter (Rodgers Consulting) and others suggested the Overlay might be graduated, with different rules for the I-270 and Route 80 area than for Sugarloaf Mountain, to allow planning “latitude for change,” to reduce “special exception “handcuffs,” and to protect “development rights.” Any such compromise would be an invitation for development west of I-270, eventually leading to a breakdown of the Sugarloaf Plan. Sugarloaf Alliance supports applying the preservation Overlay to the entire area, in order for the planning area to be truly protected now and in the future.
Mr. Natelli is opposed to the Overlay’s 15,000 sq. ft. limit on building size. Also, Mr. Natelli and others proposed extending water and sewer from the east side of I-270 to the west side in the Sugarloaf Plan area. We continue to ask what the developer wants to build. They have not been forthcoming regarding plans for their properties in the Sugarloaf Plan area west of I-270. Sugarloaf Alliance opposes consideration of such compromises without the public knowing what the compromises are intended to allow.
Potomac Garden Center again opposed inclusion in the Overlay. The west-side businesses close to the Rt. 80/I-270 interchange (including Potomac Gardens) were excluded from the Sugarloaf Plan. Sugarloaf Alliance continues to advocate that aesthetic and environmental protections be applied to those properties. They are the ‘camel’s nose under the tent,' foreshadowing development-creep west of I-270.
Steve Horn, Director of the Frederick County Planning and Permitting Division, said that we (preservation supporters) should be open to changes - perhaps changing the Overlay boundary to Route 80, as an example - or we won’t have any Overlay protections at all. (Note: Mr. Horn was scheduled to retire 2/1/23.) Mr. Horn’s comments suggest continuing ambivalence in the county administration regarding the Plan’s preservation boundaries.
We are concerned about the county’s commitment to preservation in the Sugarloaf area. A Commissioner, who once called the I-270 boundary a longstanding “promise” to those living west of I-270, began finding details to criticize. So did one or two other Commissioners. After breaking into discussion groups, Plan opponents tried to open the discussion to include status of the Plan itself. On 1/27, The Frederick News-Post reported that the county, in its secret talks with Amazon Web Services (also reported by Sugarloaf Alliance), had been quite ready to carve up the Sugarloaf Plan to make room for data centers. That effort apparently was halted only by the timing – there was too little time left to pass the necessary legislation before the 2022 elections. Hasty public consideration would have been “cosmetic at best” and seen as “abusing” trust in the county government.
Comments made in the 1/17 focus groups by Mr. Horn and industry participants suggest that the boundary questions, and perhaps data centers, are still on the table. Since the Sugarloaf Plan and Overlay began their public process in 2021, the Sugarloaf Alliance repeatedly has urged the Planning Commission and the County Council to hold the line at I-270. We will continue to do so.
Stronghold (Sugarloaf Mountain) did not attend. Stronghold sent a letter to the Planning Commission saying they wouldn’t participate. This was Stronghold's strategy in the last round of Planning Commission considerations. Further, they no longer retain the attorney who was representing them to the Council. Remember that, last year, after refusing to participate in the public process, they showed up at the County Council meetings claiming they hadn’t had their say, and they derailed the Overlay with the threat to close the mountain. Sugarloaf Alliance opposes allowing one landowner to veto county land use policy.
Discussion of the Overlay is expected to be included on the February 15 Planning Commission agenda (5:30pm, Winchester Hall, 12 E. Church St., Frederick). We are preparing to address new Overlay and development proposals, as outlined above. In coming weeks (months?), the Planning Commission will reconsider the Overlay and send its recommended version (amended or not) back to the County Council for consideration.
Here’s how you can help at this point:
The Planning Commission is now accepting public comments. It is important that the Commissioners hear from you. Even if you have submitted comments before, please email them again.
Here are some points you might make in an email to Commissioners. Email your comments to:
I-270 is the long-recognized boundary and remains by far the best line for planning purposes. No high-density development should occur west of I-270 in the Sugarloaf Plan area.
Last year the Planning Commission agreed that the boundary should be I-270, rejecting the sweetheart deal of cut-outs for developers. If the Planning Commission or the County Council return the developer cut-outs to the Overlay, adjacent property owners would become the involuntary buffers between dense development and rural properties.
If the I-270 boundary is crossed and more intense development is allowed in the Sugarloaf Plan area, there will be a race to the bottom. Rural neighbors will opt to appeal current zoning, cash out and move rather than tolerate the overpowering density of commercial, industrial or Villages-like environment. The area west of I-270 will look like that east of I-270.
The approved Sugarloaf Plan and its proposed Overlay District are preservation plans, not development plans.
Open space is not merely undeveloped space. In the context of climate and covid changes, open space should be considered the “highest and best use” of the entire Sugarloaf Treasured Landscape area.
The 270/80 interchange has been called the "Gateway to Sugarloaf Mountain" and as such is under very heavy development pressure. It needs MORE protection not less.
The land east of Route 80 is the head of the watershed into the Sugarloaf area. Contaminants associated with development, such as heavy metals from vehicle traffic and sediments and discharge from whatever infrastructure might be built, would negatively impact the quality of streams as they flow into the protected area.
If high-density development is allowed west of I-270, the Monocacy Civil War Battlefield will be further threatened. There is only one property currently between developer-owned land on Park Mills Road and the Park boundary.
The mountain is a unique and irreplaceable feature of southern Frederick County. The Sugarloaf Plan and Overlay are designed to protect the mountain, its rural environment, its natural resources, for now and the future, including after the land trust expires in 2046.
The developer and the county have been secretive about their development discussions and intentions for the properties on the west side of I-270 in the Sugarloaf Plan and Overlay area. Residents of the area and those love the Sugarloaf area have a right to know what has been considered and what is being planned.
It takes all of us. Thanks for sticking with the effort to preserve the Sugarloaf area!