Greed, Politics and Ignorance:
The Saga of the Sugarloaf Overlay Plan,
the Assaults on Frederick County
Steve and Blanca Poteat, Sugarloaf Alliance Executive Committee Members
The County Council’s decision on December 19, 2023, to reject the Sugarloaf Rural Heritage Overlay Zoning District in a 5-2 vote was a colossal mistake and the second major assault on responsible land use regulation in Frederick County. Council Members McKay and Donald, representing the Urbana and Sugarloaf regions, supported the Overlay. Their colleagues’ decision, apparently, was based on ignorance, greed and politics.
What were we mere County residents and citizens/voters thinking? Given the solid, land use principles and objectives in the Sugarloaf Area Plan and the Livable Frederick Master Plan, we may have thought we had a real chance to protect the Sugarloaf region. But from even the beginning of the Sugarloaf Plan preparation, we were unknowingly up against one of the world’s richest corporations, an array of wealthy national companies, landed gentry, a feudal principality, duplicitous County government, and what we now know as “corporate democrats.” The Council’s decision leaves the region with only inadequate zoning regulations and no protection from obnoxious and incompatible land uses like shooting ranges, rubble landfills and data centers that threaten its integrity and environmental importance.
Former County Executive Jan Gardner said she was “profoundly disappointed by the council’s decision to reject the overlay altogether. It is a missed opportunity to protect the unique and sensitive environmental features that should be valued by everyone but most importantly by elected leaders who have voiced support for the Livable Frederick Master Plan and for protecting the environment.” FNP 12-22-23
However, “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” In October 2022 Gardner led the charge to remand the Overlay Zone to the Planning Commission, perhaps to protect her successor’s campaign from the damage a Stronghold threat to close Sugarloaf Mountain might have caused.
Further, Gardner’s Overlay remand support protected developer Natelli’s investment on agriculturally-zoned properties on the west side of I-270 in the Sugarloaf Plan and Overlay region and provided more time to persuade the new County Council to move the Overlay and Plan boundaries away from his properties, essentially violating the more than 50-year County commitment to preserve the west side of I-270. So far, this strategy has worked.
Besides greed and politics, the December 19 Council action exposed the outright ignorance, intentional or otherwise, displayed by five Council Members in justifications for their decision. Apparently, at least four Council Members have not read the Livable Frederick Master Plan or the Sugarloaf Treasured Landscape Management Plan. Or, if they did, their comments suggest that they did not understand what they read. Here is a short list of examples.
1. Overlay zone boundary creep: The most egregious Council excuse for the “no” vote was that the Sugarloaf Plan, and thus its Overlay boundary, was expanded by citizen pressure into areas not intended by the county executive, therefore, “boundary creep.” As the public hearing record clearly shows, all staff work from December 2019 leading up to the draft plan included I-270 as the plan boundary in the Thurston Road area. The first time that the Natelli #1 Cutout along Thurston Road appeared was after Natelli participated by phone in a County-led Sugarloaf stakeholders group meeting and complained, “What about my land?” The draft plan was scheduled to be released the following month but was then delayed for five months while staff, following executive office direction, revised the plan to conform to Natelli’s demand to cut out his properties. County documents, released under court order pursuant to a Maryland Public Information Act request, confirm these actions.
2. The second purported boundary creep, Natelli Cutout #2, concerned the area north of MD 80 to the Monocacy River. Council Members suggested that this area needs to be reserved for future
I-270 Corridor expansion. As noted in the I-270 discussion below, this is a far-fetched possibility, decades, if ever, in the future. The only defensible eastern boundary at this time for the Sugarloaf Plan and Overlay is I-270.
In fact, the lack of improvements in the I-270 Corridor will actually aid the redevelopment envisioned in the County’s South Frederick Corridors Plan along MD 355 and MD 85. The success of that plan is wholly dependent on economic expansion to convert the area into a “livable, walkable” community. Efforts to artificially kick-start Urbana employment development will only undermine the future success of South Frederick redevelopment.
3. NO extra protection needed? The Council claimed that the Sugarloaf region needs no further protection than existing zoning provides. They clearly have no memory or involvement with residents who have had to spend many thousands of dollars to defend the Sugarloaf region from gun ranges, megachurches and poorly located wedding venues. The Overlay Zone would have protected the Sugarloaf region from such inappropriate and inconsistent land uses. Recall that the Livable Frederick Master Plan specifically calls for a Sugarloaf Overlay Zone to protect the area’s unique features. In fact, it even lists the types of land uses that need to be given special review. The Sugarloaf Overlay includes these criteria and protections. But the last County Council stripped many of those environmental protections from the Sugarloaf Plan. And the current Council completely removed the remaining protections by failing to adopt the Overlay Zone.
4. Exclusionary Zoning: One Councilmember suggested that the Sugarloaf Overlay represents exclusionary zoning. This is a serious misreading of the Livable Frederick Master Plan and misunderstanding of exclusionary zoning. The Livable Frederick Master Plan calls for a balanced mixture of land uses around the County and specifies areas around Sugarloaf Mountain, as well as Catoctin Mountain and South Mountain, to be preserved for Green Infrastructure and preservation of environmental features. Further, the Sugarloaf Overlay comprises less than 5% of the County, which means that the County has many other areas more appropriate to consider for development.
5. Lack of Knowledge: A Council Member suggested he was not knowledgeable enough to make decisions on the land use issues relevant to the Sugarloaf Overlay Zone. However, the County Council is not a training ground. It is a Council Member’s responsibility to become educated on major land use issues, to understand the documents before them, to avoid uniformed criticism, or to resign from the Council.
As a criticism of the Sugarloaf Overlay Zone design standards, another Council Member suggested that the Overlay represented “government overreach” to limit lighting on farms that are needed for safety concerns. A closer reading of the Overlay design standards would show that they do not apply to agriculturally zoned land and farm operations.
6. Planning Commission Reconsideration: A Council Member suggested that the Council expected the Planning Commission to modify the Overlay Zone to satisfy the terms of the previous Council’s remand and opponents’ concerns. However, the remand only requested the Planning Commission to review the Overlay and recommend Council action. It is not the role of the Planning Commission to make decisions that are inconsistent with sound land use planning principles and County master plans. They provided a second thorough review and, despite Stronghold’s refusal to participate in the discussions, even provided a means for them to exempt Sugarloaf Mountain from the Overlay. Five Council Members chose, however, to ignore the Planning Commission’s second and emphatic recommendation to pass the Overlay.
The assaults on responsible land use planning in Frederick County continue. The Blaine Young County Commissioners began the assault with numerous and reckless rezonings and DRRAs (Development Rights and Responsibilities Agreements) leading to worsening school overcrowding, inadequate infrastructure and unsustainable fiscal strains.
The second assault has been the County Council’s attack on the County’s Green Infrastructure and environment with the disapproval of the Sugarloaf Overlay Zone.
This Overlay defeat paved the way for the third assault: the desecration of 9,400 acres from Brunswick to Urbana with data centers to be located and approved with a floating zone.
The fourth assault will inevitably follow with the construction of high tension lines and electrical substations, despoiling the landscapes and viewsheds of the Sugarloaf region and increasing the electric bills of County Potomac Edison/First Energy customers, all to service those data centers.
What’s next for land use in Frederick County? Will the County’s public officials understand and be guided by the future needs of county residents, the requirements for climate change sustainability, and the principles and guidance of the Livable Frederick Master Plan, the Sugarloaf Treasured Landscape Management Plan, and others? Or will the be guided by the short-term profitability and political support of development interests driven by non-County residents? Now that a majority of the current County Council has chosen to ignore the Planning Commission’s recommendation and to disapprove the Sugarloaf Overlay Zoning District, what’s next for the protection of the Sugarloaf region?