skip to main content

→ Top Stories:
Clean Power plan
Safe Chemicals

Kaid Benfield’s Blog

Does this look like a good place for smart growth development?

Kaid Benfield

Posted September 4, 2009

, , , ,
Share | | |

  farmland proposed for development outside Frederick, MD (courtesy of Kai Hagen) 

I don't think so, either.  But the leaders of the city of Frederick, Maryland, apparently think otherwise.  This is despite strong opposition from the leaders of surrounding Frederick County, which until now has had jurisdiction over the property.

Basically this is farmland clearly beyond the reach of current development (you can see the edge of current Frederick development - actually a retirement community - just inside the satellite image, at below left).  The farms will soon become yet more sprawl if they are built with an office park and residential subdivision, as intended under the city's decision to annex the properties on both sides of the main highway, US Route 15.

  site of proposed development on farmland outside Frederick, MD (image By Google Earth, marking by me)

My friend Kai Hagen, who is an elected member of the Frederick County Commission, believes that, instead of sprawl, community leaders should focus on the following principles:

  1. Protect the Monocacy River [visible running north-south in the right area of both images] corridor, productive farmland, scenic vistas, and a buffer between Frederick and Walkersville.
  2. Focus on the existing "pipeline" of future development in the city (more than 3,000 homes). Get that done first, done right, and evaluate the impact.
  3. Don't expand dramatically to the north when existing roads are inadequate, congested and dangerous, and there's no plan to solve that anytime soon.
  4. Emphasize well conceived infill and redevelopment. Don't neglect existing neighborhoods in danger of serious decline.
  5. Don't skirt the letter of the law by rushing to approve two major and controversial annexations within six months of the 2009 election.

farmland proposed for development outside Frederick, MD (courtesy of Kai Hagen)All five county commissioners signed an op-ed in the Frederick News-Post opposing the annexation of the 336 acres at issue, and the county school board has opposed current plans for a school-sprawl site on the property as well.

Maryland has a suite of smart growth laws, and these properties have fallen outside the development sites that must be designated in order to receive state infrastructure funding.  But one of the major loopholes in the law is that, once the property becomes part of a city, it is generally deemed appropriate for development.  The city's aldermen approved the annexation last night.

Challenges await, including a likely petition to overturn the decision by referendum.  The county commissioners have also asked the state's planning office to weigh in regarding the property.

For the sake of Marylanders who care about their land, the health of their cities, and the environment, let's hope a challenge is successful.  Until that is the case, sprawl remains alive and well in the state that coined the phrase "smart growth."

Kaid Benfield writes (almost) daily about community, development, and the environment.  For more posts, see his blog's home page. 


Share | | |


Kai HagenSep 4 2009 08:16 AM

Thank you for this blog entry, Kaid.

The final vote is not the final word, or even the final vote, however. If the citizens can get enough signatures on a petition for referendum over the next 45 days, the voters of the City of Frederick will have the opportunity to overturn the annexation approvals.

To any readers in the Frederick area: If you would be willing and able to assist in that effort, please send me an email:

Jim NoonanSep 4 2009 09:13 PM

I don't live in Frederick City or in Frederick County and have done no assessment of the development proposals on these subject properties. I might suggest that you have not done that homework either. This development might, especially in the current economic climate be premature. I don't know, but I do understand that while the County Commissioners unanimously oppose this annexation the Mayor and Frederick City Alderman, seem to be almost as insistent on supporting it. So let me not speak to the local issue on a national blog, but point out some issues with some of the assumptions you have made in this Blog.

First, is a little geography. Just to the south of your photograph is the development of Worman's Mill which is precisely the kind of walkable development that you generally support on this blog. It is in the City and is bordered by the Monocacy River and surrounding open space. On the other hand it is suggested that the City should not annex to the north. But the City rarely annexes to the south for the simple reason that the County has already allowed that to develop in sprawl development with the typical mix of big box and mall commercial development.

Now let's talk about Maryland';s Smart Growth law. The fact that Frederick might annex this area does not 'automatically make it a Priority Funding Area as you imply. But the fact that making it a PFA might be easier if annexed is not a loophole, but was an intentional recognition by the authors of the 1997 initiatives that growth and development was most logically located on the periphery of existing municipalities. And yes, it was understood that such growth would occur on land that most probably be agricultural in nature prior to annexation.

Now lastly, a comment on the last 'principle' articulated in this blog. What law is being skirted here? I know of no law that says that the Mayor or the Alderman are prohibited from making development decisions within a certain period of an election. So, though we can recognize that challenges exist, including the authority of the County to delay substantial rezoning of these areas even after annexation (also Maryland law) maybe someone on a National blog should stay out of local issues and perhaps not make broad assumptions about what might or might not be Smart Growth without at least talking to local officals on both sides of the issue. And if you have in fact done so, I apologize in advance!

Kai HagenSep 4 2009 10:22 PM

I'm tempted to address some of your other points, as well, Jim. But for the moment I'll just pass along this direct quote from a City of Frederick resolution:

“The Mayor and Board of Aldermen will not accept or introduce a petition for annexation during the period of time beginning six (6) months prior to The City of Frederick general election and ending three (3) months after said general election.”

The intent and spirit of this is clear - to avoid the mayor and board of alderman being engaged in an annexation process in the weeks and months just before (and just after) and election. They "skirted" that by taking the annexation request a day or two before the six month deadline, and then proceeding to negotiate and approve some large and controversial annexations up to within 12 days of a hotly contested primary, in which four of the five sitting aldermen are candidates.

The comment is fair and accurate.


I'll also point out that it isn't just the county commissioners that are opposed to the annexations, as they have been constructed, but also the State Highway Administration, the Maryland Department of Planning, local citizens groups, and the great majority of people who have spoken at hearings, emailed elected officials, written letters to the editor, and so on.

There are many serious problems with the annexation agreements that have been negotiated. And that is why the petition for referendum is likely to be successful, not to mention the referendum itself.

Jim NoonanSep 5 2009 02:35 PM

"Skirted" implied sommething underhanded or illegal. It appears they have met the letter of their own law in accepting this petition when they did so. As for the election, if so many are opposed to this annexation then the sitting Aldermen may pay a price at the ballot box. We shall see. Since annexation processes often take up to a year or longer, if they wanted to avoid being involved in annexation processes in an election, the prohibition would have had to kick in much earlier. In my experience there are ALWAYS people who are opposed to development, or change of any other kind. On reading the local papers I don't see that there has been a degree of opposition to these proposals that is above the ordinary levels.

As for the State Highway Administration, it appears that they are concerned about a particular intersection. It appears that the City may have to require more of the developer to make traffic at the intersection work. If there is a real concern here (long term) and there may very well be, the County can prevent re-zoning of this property at urban densities for up to five years after annexation, so there may be time to address that kind of deficiency.

The Department of Planning has weighed in in opposition? Last I heard the Secretary was merely sponsoring a meeting between County and City officials. I will inquire. I am interested in what the basis for opposition might be. New requirements for consistency with local planning requirements kick in beginning in October. I don't know how Frederick City currently stands with meeting the new planning requirements.

Frederick is a City of 50,000 people, the second largest municipality in Maryland after Baltimore City. It is directly affected by growth pressures from both the Baltimore and Washington metropolitan areas. Not all growth can be accomodated by in-fill. From an incremental perspective, expansion to the north is quite logical for Frederick, and the development inside the City limits quite close to this location is at fairly high densities, certainly higher than much of the development south and east of the City which has been approved by County government.

Kai HagenSep 6 2009 12:54 AM

The BOCC will not support a waiver of inconsistency - clearly. So the five years is a given.

But depending on who sits on the next BOCC, it may well be longer than that. These two annexations were approved without any plan/agreement/contract for sewer (just one of many shortcomings to the rushed process, and agreement). And the county has to provide the sewer.

Neither delay justifies either the process (which was inadequate in many ways) or the annexations.

Also, there are more than 3,500 homes in the development pipeline in the city, not to mention a substantial inventory of commercial and office development. There was no immediate or short term need being met by these annexations.

Rather, the pipeline suggests the city would be well advised to make progress there - and to do it well - and be able to evaluate and address the effects of those before adding to the pipeline.

If you think the broader areas on the northside of town are largely developed, and at "fairly high densities," you reveal the effect of your distance and lack of upt-o-date familiarity with that landscape.

Nobody here has suggested that Frederick (with 62,000 people, by the way) can or should meet all of its growth needs/pressures with infill. But well done infill and smart redevelopment ought to be a priority. Continuing to expand outward into ag and forested "greenfields," a half a mile or a mile at a time, is both the result and a cause of lower-than-appropriate prioritizing of the infill and development.

As for the level of concern or opposition: I guess the Petition for Referendum and the referendum vote itself will be the final word on that.

By the way, Jim: You say that Worman's Mill is "just to the south" of the properties in question. It may not be far, but that is a bit misleading. More to the point, however, while Worman's Mill is "smart growth" in some ways (it embodies SOME smart growth principles), there are a number of ways in which is does not embody those principles.

It was better than spreading out that many residents on large lots. It has a good mix of housing types and sizes, sidewalks, community spaces, is within the city limits, etc. But I wouldn't hold it up as a model of the way to do things, but merely as an example of how we started to move in the right direction, even if we weren't there yet.

Kaid @ NRDCSep 6 2009 10:33 AM

I have added a map of the city of Frederick with the parcels in question highlighted, in a follow-up post. The map provides additional perspective to the issues and, in my opinion, adds weight to the implication that the parcels are not the next best places to develop under good planning principles, but simply the ones that were available, and that the developers pursued annexation to escape the jurisdiction of a county government unwilling to sanction the proposed development.

Jim NoonanSep 6 2009 03:50 PM

Since I am not a resident of either the County or City I don't want to sit in judgement over either. Just a final comment before I go on to other topics... It is good that there are over 3500 homes in the pipeline in Frederick City. The Maryland Department of Planning projects that the number of households in the County (including the City) will increase 10,000 between 2010 and 2015, and by 2030 the number of households will increase by 39,400. Given those numbers and the size of the City relative to other municipalities in the County, a substantial portion of that growth will have to be accomodated in some way by Frederick City. I suggest it will happen largely through annexations like the ones being proposed here, unless plans for Walkersville or similar small communities call for a doubling in size. Another option of course is that all of this growth will occur on more scattered farmland in Frederick County outside of the municipalities, or worse, leapfrogs to Washington County to the west or north into Pennsylvania.

Kai HagenSep 7 2009 01:21 AM

There are well more than 10,000 homes in the county pipeline at this time.

The town of Brunswick is doubling in the next few years, as a result of a single large annexation and development (of 1,500 homes).

Urbana (not a municipality) still has more than 1,200 approved homes to build and sell.

There is room in our existing city and towns (and similar areas within the county) to accommodate a considerable amount of growth without the City of Frederick having to expand to the north, and that's before we have a serious conversation about some ripe redevelopment opportunities. All without having to support or enable rural sprawl.

In the last three years, the county has taken a significant number of substantial and effective steps to reduce that sort of sprawl by the way.

Laurence AurbachSep 7 2009 10:45 AM

Worman's Mill achieves some desirable planning goals, but lacks some of the features of great urban places.

The street layout has some small walkable blocks, but tends toward cul-de-sacs and isolated pods. Street geometries favor high-speed auto traffic rather than pedestrian and bicycle use. Higher-density townhouses and apartments are configured in the suburban mode with driveways and parking lots in front. Buffers, berms and other undefined open spaces are the rule throughout, so that streetscapes overall lack spatial definition and pedestrian attraction.

A majority of Worman's Mill housing is within walking distance of retail, but much of it is auto-oriented strip malls and big box superstores. The Village Square is a small but notable bright spot in that context. A number of large employers are within short driving distance. The development also has good access to playgrounds, trails and parks.

In sum, Worman's Mill is a hybrid of smart growth/new urbanism and suburban sprawl. I agree with Kai that it's not an exemplary model, but perhaps a step towards better planning and design.

The central, historic part of Frederick is one of America's best small cities in terms of walkable, livable urban design. If you haven't visited yet, give it a try sometime!

Kai HagenSep 7 2009 01:28 PM

Good post, Laurence.

To your comment:

"A majority of Worman's Mill housing is within walking distance of retail, but much of it is auto-oriented strip malls and big box superstores."

...I would add the note that the auto-oriented strip malls you mention also happen to be across a broad, busy and fairly high speed road. Not pedestrian-friendly, and not something young children would be allowed near.

(Kids in the community can't walk to elementary school, either!)

Comments are closed for this post.


Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit

Feeds: Stay Plugged In