Deborah Carpenter, Director of Department of Planning and Land Management explains map to guests.
The 2018 November General Election will be the first time Maryland and Garrett County residents will be voting since the unprecedented fracking ban was passed in the 2017 Maryland General Assembly. The prohibition of horizontal gas drilling embroiled the state in a years-long conflict before Governor Hogan erred on the side of caution at an impromptu press conference when he stated, "The potential environmental risks of fracking simply outweigh any potential benefits."
This announcement came as a welcomed surprise to legislators and grassroots organizations who were poised for a bitter battle. His endorsement of the ban that began in the House of Delegates, helped sail it through the Maryland Senate where it was uncertain whether enough votes would topple the gas industry's plan to drill in Garrett County.
Elected officials luckily dodged the fracking issue and answering to voters during an election cycle. With the absence of divisive or other hot-button issues, the Midterm primary in Garrett County reflected lack-luster voter participation. Only 25% of Republicans and 23% of Democrats cast ballots in the June election. Total voter participation topped out at 22% which also included Independent voters who could only cast ballots in the nonpartisan Board of Elections race. The 2018 midterms have not generated even moderate interest with Garrett County voters. There is reason for concern that the November election outcomes won't be representative of the broader population if participation doesn't improve dramatically.
Without a single bullhorn issue in the 2018 midterms, candidates are focused on broader visions for the future or targeting shortcomings with the current leadership. With a rewriting of the County's Comprehensive Plan underway, voters should consider paying attention to what a proposed strategy for the future looks like according to county government officials and those seeking office.
The Garrett County Department of Planning and Land Management under the leadership of Deborah Carpenter has begun the process of reexamining the Comprehensive Plan that guides and informs elected officials over the course of the next 10 years. The current plan was adopted in 2008 with many of the benchmarks unaccomplished or irrelevant in today's modern economic climate.
Although there have been two open sessions to engage the public and collect input, both sessions have been lightly attended and by many of the same people who have steered the county for decades.
The second public session held on July 16 targeted the environment. Various stations offered information about how the county will manage areas such as drinking water, sewer systems, parks, and watersheds. Energy is also integrated into the plan, Renewable energy, such as wind, solar, and hydroelectric, and extractive resources that include coal mining and natural gas development are all part of the larger plan.
In a resort and recreation-based economy like Garrett County, environmental stewardship is of significant importance to business owners, residents, visitors, and investors. The tourism industry generates somewhere between 60% to 80% of the tax base and the Garrett County Chamber of Commerce, with roughly a $1 million annual budget, has proudly announced 6 percent growth year over year as a result of their regional marketing efforts.
At the environmental planning session, attendees were asked to prioritize or emphasize what they viewed as most important and what was not. At the "Energy" station, fracking reared its ugly head once more. Comment #3 requested that fracking remain part of the next Comprehensive Plan in spite of the ban. Comments #6 and #11 expressed differing opinions, suggesting that fracking should be stricken from the county plan to be consistent with the state ban language and that horizontal gas drilling remains predominantly unwelcome by Garrett County citizens.
The previous Comprehensive Plan wove hydraulic fracturing into nearly every economic development sector. Rewriting the plan would be the perfect time to align local law with state law.
Worry is growing that the Western Maryland Delegation may want to keep the door open for natural gas development if the state ever overturned the 2017 ban on fracking.
Those who took lead roles in supporting ban legislation feel the topic has not completely gone away, and rumblings both in Annapolis and at home has generated disquiet especially with the new county plan off and running. Individuals are clearly still lobbying for fracking which was made apparent by at least one comment at the public session.
Environmental groups and legislators worry that if Maryland's Republican Governor Larry Hogan wins a second term, he could overturn the ban which would align more closely with his party's larger vision based on the Environmental Protection Agency's move to relax protective regulations. Hogan has been accused of using the ban as a short-term political maneuver to capture voters in Maryland's 2018 election cycle.
In a recent statement from the Hogan/Rutherford campaign page, however, Hogan emphasizes his interest in Maryland's environment by protecting the Chesapeake Bay, continuing to uphold the Paris Climate Agreement, and remaining part of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. The statement also says,
"The governor is standing firm against all practices that threaten to harm our environment, including signing a ban on hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) and publicly opposing the federal administration’s reckless push to allow oil drilling off Maryland’s shores."
The rumor mill may be guiding Hogan's environmental campaign statement with the intention of quelling voter concerns on both sides of the aisle. The state's environmental well-being is directly linked to Maryland's economy with the Chesapeake Bay industries, and the Eastern Shore and Garrett County outdoor recreation and tourism.
The Governor will be facing off with Democrat Ben Jealous in November who easily took his party's nomination in the June Maryland primary. Jealous is considered a formidable challenger, however, Hogan gets high marks from Maryland residents, ranking him as the second most popular governor in the nation. Staying true to his party, Jealous would likely adhere to strong environmental policies as governor, leaving gas and oil executives with little hope of lobbying to overturn the fracking ban in the Maryland General Assembly.
As the county moves through the next phases of reshaping the Comprehensive Plan, striking fracking from the language would comply with Maryland state regulations and avoid sullying other more sustainable economic strategies. The Comprehensive Plan still has many public sessions ahead before it's officially adopted. Garrett County could turn an economic corner if the plan fosters 21st-century competitive business models it currently lacks but desperately needs.
As far as voter incentives go, some may view the 2018 Midterm similarly to fracking's horizontal drilling technique. It's less about what you see happening on the surface than what you don't see happening underground.
The county's Comprehensive Plan is a useful document to gauge the influence and performance of county elected officials. Voter opinion on the Comprehensive Plan's vision could be just the motivating factor to get people to the polls come November.
Click on the links below to review the current Garrett County Comprehensive Plan and submit your own comments. Future public sessions will be announced once they have been scheduled. The next session will be all about the Economy.