Local Government Planning Frequently Asked Questions

​Click on the category (e.g. Priority Funding Areas) to expand. Then click on the question to expand for the answer.​

The Maryland Department of Planning will continue to add categories to the list below. If you have suggestions for categories, please contact Joe Griffiths, Local Assistance and Training Manager, at joseph.griffiths@maryland.gov.

Priority Funding Areas

Why did Maryland enact PFAs?

In 1997, the Maryland General Assembly passed "Smart Growth" legislation that created Priority Funding Areas.  This enactment followed the 1992 Economic Growth, Resource Protection, and Planning Act, which articulated Maryland's growth policy by establishing seven visions, which have since been expanded to twelve.  The 1997 legislation, now known as the Priority Funding Areas (PFA) Law, was enacted "to preserve existing neighborhoods and agricultural, natural, and rural resources; prohibiting state agencies from approving specified projects that are not in priority funding areas; providing for specified exceptions; establishing a certification process for the designation of eligible priority funding areas; requiring municipal corporations to adopt specified development standards and assist counties in the collection of fees to finance specified school construction; etc."  PFAs were established to focus the State's growth-related spending into existing communities and locally designated growth areas, thus ensuring a more efficient use of funding and limiting growth induced by the extension of infrastructure into areas better suited for preservation and limited growth.​​

What is the benefit of designating a land area as PFA? 

PFA's are designated by local jurisdictions as a policy statement that the local government prefers growth to occur in the designated area and wants to collaborate with State agencies to direct State resources into that area.  There are numerous benefits of PFA designation.  Locally, a PFA designation communicates to residents, business owners, and other stakeholders where a community would like to grow and invest.  At the State level, PFA designation provides access to a variety of growth-related funding, including for water and sewer infrastructure, transportation facilities, housing, business development tax credits, and neighborhood revitalization, among others.​

How is a PFA designated? What is the local process? Does this require a Public Hearing or Public Meeting and if so, what entity holds the hearing or meeting? 

The local designation process is determined by the jurisdiction and may be completed either administratively or legislatively;  State law does not establish any specific designation process or procedures and does not require any sort of public hearing on a proposed designation.  The Maryland Department of Planning recommends that a jurisdiction considering a PFA designation consult with the jurisdiction's attorney to ensure it follows proper local procedures.  When the Department of Planning receives a PFA designation, its does so under the assumption that the jurisdiction followed its local procedures and proceeds with its review accordingly.​

How difficult is it to designate a land area as a PFA? What are the state criteria for PFA designation?

The answer to this depends on whether the area to be designated meets the statutory criteria for PFA designation, set forth in State Finance and Procurement Article §5–7B–03. If it meets the criteria, the process is simple and only requires the submission of a PFA Certification request to the Maryland Department of Planning.  The PFA designation criteria differ based on the specifics and context of the area to be designated, but the standard requirements are: 1.) Zoning: if residentially zoned, the area must at least have a density of 3.5 dwelling units per acre. The zoning also qualifies if the area is zoned for employment uses, such as commercial, industrial, or institutional; 2.) Water and Sewer Plan: the area must be planned for sewer service in the 10-year water and sewer plan; and 3.) Growth Area: the area must be within a locally designated growth area. Please contact Joe Griffiths at joseph.griffiths@maryland.gov or the Regional Planner assigned to your jurisdiction if you have questions about whether an area qualifies for PFA designation as they can provide​ helpful input and guidance; for instance, there are provisions related to Rural Villages that cause rural community PFA designations to be somewhat complicated.​

What State Funding Programs are subject to the PFA Law? 

Department of Housing and Community Development:
The construction or purchase of newly constructed single-family homes by the Community Development Administration’s (CDA) Maryland Mortgage Program (MMP), which provides low interest mortgages to qualified first time homebuyers; the acquisition or construction of newly constructed multifamily rental housing (NMRH) by CDA; and State funded neighborhood revitalization projects, which include funding from Community Legacy (CL), Community Investment Tax Credit (CITC), Neighborhood Business Works (NBW) and Strategic Demolition and Smart Growth Impact Fund (SGIF). To be included in a DHCD designated Sustainable Community, an area must be in a PFA.

Department of General Services:
While it has no capital budget, General Services is responsible for acquiring, leasing, and maintaining most of the state’s facilities. Thus, it is responsible for ensuring that the state’s growth-related funding is limited to PFAs for state leases of property and land acquisition. However, the law explicitly exempts projects for “maintenance, repair, additions or renovations to existing facilities, acquisition of land for telecommunications towers, parks, conservation and open space, and acquisition of agricultural, conservation, and historic easements.” General Services sends every lease and project to Planning’s State Clearinghouse for Intergovernmental Assistance to ensure compliance with the PFA Law.

Department of Commerce:
The Maryland Small Business Development Financing Authority (MSBDFA), which provides financing for small businesses that do not qualify for financing from private lending institutions or owned by socially and economically disadvantaged persons; the Maryland Economic Development Assistance Authority and Fund (MEDAAF), which provides loans and grants to businesses and local jurisdictions; the Economic Development Opportunities Fund (Sunny Day Fund or SDF), which promotes Maryland’s participation in extraordinary economic development opportunities that provide significant returns to the state through creating and retaining employment as well as the creation of significant capital investments in PFAs; and the Maryland Economic Adjustment Fund (MEAF), which assists businesses with modernization of manufacturing operations, the development of commercial applications for technology and exploring and entering new markets.​

Department of the Environment:
The Maryland Water Quality Revolving Loan Fund (MWQRLF), which provides financial assistance to public entities and local governments for wastewater treatment plant upgrades, and other water quality and public health improvement projects, and to public or private entities for nonpoint source pollution prevention projects; the Water Supply Financial Assistance Program (WSFAP), which provides financial assistance to local government entities for the acquisition, construction, rehabilitation, and improvement of publicly-owned water supply facilities; the Supplemental Assistance Program (SAP), which provides grants to local governments for planning, design, and construction of needed wastewater facilities; and the Maryland Drinking Water Revolving Loan Fund (MDWRLF), which provides financial assistance to publicly and privately owned community water systems and nonprofit, non-community water systems for projects that address public health, public safety, environmental, or regulatory issues.  Additionally, certain sewer funded projects using the Bay Restoration Fund (BRF) may require compliance with the PFA Law and local government should discuss the applicability of the PFA Law on a BRF project with a representative of MDE.

Department of Transportation:
For Transportation, growth-related projects include all major capital projects defined as “any new, expanded, or significantly improved facility or service that involves planning, environmental studies, design, right-of-way, construction, or purchase of essential equipment related to the facility or service.” Transportation lists such projects in its Consolidated Transportation Program (CTP) as major projects and details the PFA status of each project as part of the annual report. The modal administrations of Transportation for which major capital projects are subject to PFA restrictions include: the State Highway Administration (Highways); the Maryland Transit Administration (Transit); the Maryland Aviation Administration (Aviation; the Maryland Port Administration (Port Administration); the Motor Vehicle Administration (Motor Vehicles); the Secretary’s Office. 

Maryland Historical Trust:
MHT, a division of Planning, gives preference to commercial applicants for the Historic Revitalization Tax Credit (HRTC) to projects that are located within PFAs. The program provides Maryland income tax credits equal to 20% of the qualified capital costs expended in the rehabilitation of a “certified heritage structure.” Projects involving “certified historic structures” that are high-performance commercial buildings or have been approved to receive Low Income Housing Tax Credits may be eligible to receive a 25% credit. Projects in a Qualified Opportunity Zone may earn an additional 5% credit (Level 1) or 7.5% credit (Level 2).

Conversely, what State Funding Programs are not subject to the PFA Law?

Most State funding, with the exceptions of those funding sources and programs listed above, are not subject to the PFA Law.  In addition, the PFA expressly exempts the following:

Department of General Services:
Project for maintenance, repair, additions, or renovations to existing facilities, acquisition of land for telecommunications towers, parks, conservation and open space, and acquisition of agricultural, conservation, and historic easements

Department of Housing and Community Development:
Any project financed with federal money used to purchase or rehabilitate existing single or multifamily housing or project financed with the proceeds of revenue bonds issued by the community Development Administration if the DHCD Secretary deems it meets certain criteria. 

Department of Natural Resources:
Acquisition of land by DNR under Title 1, Subtitle 1 of the Natural Resources Article

Department of Transportation:
Transportation projects pertaining to existing Maryland Transportation Authority facilities, studies currently in the project planning phase (pre-decisional), and Minor Capital Projects, and projects that preserve or rehabilitate existing facilities or services without increasing capacity.  Depending on the transportation project, such as projects without a specific location, some transportation projects may not be subject to the PFA Law.​

Is federal funding subject to the PFA law?

No, federal funding programs are not impacted by whether the project location is in a PFA. However, if a jurisdiction or other applicant wishes to leverage State funding with federal funding, then the project may be hindered if it is not located within a PFA. Please note though that DHCD also requires Community Development Block Grants be limited to PFAs, even though the funding source is the federal government. ​

What is the process for designating land area as a PFA? 

Designating an area as PFA is a local government action known as a PFA Certification.  A PFA Certification is an official letter from the jurisdiction stating local designation of an area as PFA, which includes the following information for the area designated: map and parcel number(s), applicable zoning, allowable residential density, water and sewer service area designations, comprehensive plan designated growth area status, and any other relevant information which led the local jurisdiction to determine that the area satisfies PFA designation criteria.  A jurisdiction must submit its PFA Certifcation letter and related documentation to the Maryland Department of Planning which will review the Certification for compliance with the PFA designation criteria; if it determines that the designated PFA satisfied the criteria, Plannng will send a PFA concurrence letter to the jurisdiction within 30 days.​

Who must sign a local PFA Certification that is submitted to Planning? 

Whomever the jurisdiction authorizes to sign a PFA Certification.  While this is typically a designee of a jurisdiction's executive branch, such as a planning director, town or county administrator, or mayor, it could also be a planning commission chairperson or a town or county attorney.  Jurisdictions should ensure that a properly authorized representative signs the PFA Certification.  Once received, Planning will process the PFA Certification with the understanding that the appropriate local process has been followed. ​

What happens if the State does not concur with a local PFA designation? 

PFAs are designated locally. The Maryland Department of Planning can neither designate a PFA nor remove a local PFA designation. However, State Finance and Procurement Article § 5-7B-08 enables the Department to comment on a locally designated PFA if the Department determines that the area does not meet PFA designation criteria.  If a jurisdiction submits a PFA Certification to the Department that does not meet one or more of the criteria for PFA designation, then the Department will classify the PFA as a "PFA Comment Area" on the Department's PFA map.  This classification communicates that the area has been designated locally but that, as determined by the Department, it does not meet one or more PFA requirements.  For the purpose of administering State funded programs that are subject to the PFA law, State agencies will take into consideration a PFA Comment Area classification when processing funding requests and have typically treated PFA Comment Areas as equivalent to non-PFA areas for purposes of funding determinations.  If a jurisdiction would like to remove a Comment Area classification, it should send an official letter to the Maryland Department of Planning, in a manner similar to a PFA Certification letter, requesting removal of the Comment.  The letter should provide supporting information as to why the area now meets State criteria for PFA designation.​

What is a PFA Exception and how do I request one? 

The PFA Law permits State funding for growth-related projects located outside the PFA if: (1) "it is required to protect public health or safety;" (2) the project "involves federal funds and compliance with [the PFA Law] would conflict or be inconsistent with federal law;” or (3) it is a “growth-related project related to a commercial or industrial activity, which, due to its operational or physical characteristics, shall be located away from other development.” The Smart Growth Coordinating Committee, which is a staff level working group of the the Governor's Smart Growth Subcabinet, is tasked with reviewing for approval requests for PFA exceptions based on these criteria.  Each funding agency that provides for PFA exceptions has its own procedure for requesting them. Please review this website​ to learn more about the Maryland Department of the Environment's procedure. ​

Is an area within municipal boundaries after annexation automatically PFA? 

No. The PFA Law as enacted in 1997 established as PFA all incorporated areas as of 1997.  However, the Law changed in 2006 to require any newly annexed areas to be evaluated against the PFA criteria.  This is often an area of confusion becuase some individuals think that all areas within a municipality are PFA.  As part of its 30-day annexation review, the Maryland Department of Planning will review all annexation areas for PFA eligibility.  The Department treats an annexation as a local PFA Certification request and if it determins that the annexation area meets the PFA criteria the Department will update the PFA map to include the annexation.  If an annexation area does not meet the PFA criteria, the Department will classify the area as a PFA Comment Area.  A municipality is not required to certify all annexation areas as PFA; the annexation review letters that the Department sends to municipalities prior to the public hearing on an annexation asks that the municipality contact the Department if it does not wish the area to be a PFA. If a municipality is annexing an area it wishes to not certify as a PFA, it should include that instruction in the annexation packet it submits to the department. For example, municipalities may not wish to certify parks or even agricultural lands within its incorporated boundaries. ​

Are PFAs and jurisdictional growth boundaries the same thing? Should they be the same thing? 

No, but they are connected.  Inclusion in a jurisdiction's growth area is one of three criteria that an area must meet to be designated as a PFA, the other two being a residential zoning density of at least 3.5 dwelling units per acre or zoning for employment, and existing or planned sewer service in the county's 10-year water and sewer plan. Whether or not PFA and growth boundaries fully align is a local decision. If growth and development in a portion of a growth area is not anticipated for many years, for example not within the next 10 years, then a jurisdiction may not need to designate all of it as PFA.  Meeting the other PFA criteria (zoning and planned for sewer service) may not be readily available for a variety of planning reasons.  However, if a jurisdiction anticipates that it may seek State growth related funding (e.g. infrastructure, housing) to support development within its growth area, proactively designating an area as PFA may prevent future delays in securing funding that is restricted to PFA. ​

If a jurisdiction applies for growth related funding and then discovers that the service area is not PFA, does that automatically mean that it will not receive funding? 

No, but it may be delayed. There are a few options for jurisdictions seeking growth related funding. The simplest option is to designate the area as PFA and submit a PFA Certification to Planning. Many jurisdictions include areas that meet the zoning, water and sewer service, and growth area requirements for designation but have never done the designation and submitted the PFA Certification.  Please see Planning's submissions webpage for more information on how to submit a PFA Certification.  If an area for which a jurisdiction is seeking growth related funding does not meet one or more of the criteria for PFA designation, the jurisdiction may want to consider an amendment to a local plan or ordinance to make it eligible.  Planning appreciates that this may not be an easy solution, particularly if it involves a rezoning, but it may be the best option in such situations.  An ineligibale area can be made eligible through: (1) a comprehensive plan amendment that adds the area to the locally designated growth area; (2) a water and sewer plan amendment that plans the area for service within the 10-year plan; (3) a rezoning to a residential density of 3.5 dwelling units per acre or an employment use; or (4) some combination thereof.  The other option if applicable is pursuing a PFA Exception, most commonly to address public health and safety issues.  You can learn more about the Maryland Department of the Environment's PFA Exception requirements​ and procedures here (Link to page in column C). For many situations, such as imminently failing septic systems, a PFA Exception may be the best option for a jurisdiction. However, a PFA Exception only allows a jurisdiction to receive growth related funding for a specific growth related funding request, and does not make an area a PFA or eligible for similar funding in the future. To ensure continued funding, the jurisdiction must designate the area as a PFA.  It is important to recognize when considering a PFA exception that undeveloped land itself does not constitute a public health and safety concern.

Who has the official PFA map and how often is it updated? 

Planning maintains the official PFA map​ that is used by other State agencies and jurisdictions to locate and review PFAs around the State. Planning updates the map following jurisdictional submissions of PFA Certifications.  If Planning concurs with a local designation, it will update the map to show the area as a PFA.  If Planning does not concur, it will update the map to show the area as a PFA Comment Area. Planning treats all annexations as PFA Certification requests and will show an annexed area, upon receiving documentation the annexation is recorded with the Department of Legislative Services, as either PFA or PFA Comment Area based on whether, as determined by Planning, the annexed area meets all the PFA criteria. ​

Comprehensive Plans

What is the purpose of a comprehensive plan?

A comprehensive plan​ is a document which encapsulates a community's long term vision for its future, formulates the steps needed to achieve that vision, and describes how it will measure progress. A comprehensive plan is also required for all Maryland jurisdictions that exercise planning and zoning authority. The plan can account for the deficiencies that a community may have and ways to address those areas. A comprehensive plan should also describe how a jurisdiction will build upon and strengthen its assets. It gauges the need to grow and develop responsibly within certain short-, mid-, and long-term planning ranges. A comprehensive plan is a document, officially adopted by the local governing body, which spells out the manner in which a municipality, county or sub-area of a county should develop. Typically, it includes a map showing proposed future land use and anticipated transportation and community facilities. It also contains policies for protecting environmental features and recommendations for amending local development-related ordinances in a manner that helps achieve the comprehensive plan’s objectives. It must also explain how the jurisdiction will provide water sources and sewerage treatment for existing and future development and how stormwater will be managed. Municipal comprehensive plans must explain how anticipated growth will impact community facilities and the environment, and identify areas where growth will occur. The plan has legal significance in that zoning, provision of water and sewer, and other local actions must be consistent with its recommendations. The comprehensive plan may also be known as a "general plan", “master plan”, “master development plan” or “comprehensive master plan"

What are the specific requirements for a comprehensive plan?

Maryland state law​ dictates that certain elements must be included in all comprehensive plans, based on the type (e.g., Charter Counties, Municipalities) and location (e.g. tidal waters) of each jurisdiction. Jurisdictions with planning and zoning authority are also required to submit a 5-year implementation report to the Maryland Department of Planning 5 years after the adoption of a comprehensive plan or major update. The department has developed tools and templates to assist jurisdictions with the 5-year report and with the revision or rewrite of a comprehensive plan. Planning’s website offers many models and guidelines to help assist when drafting a plan. Each element is broken down into parts.

What does the local process for comprehensive plan development look like? What are the notification requirements?

The preparation/development of the comprehensive plan is as unique as the jurisdiction. Each jurisdiction's plan development process is slightly different, depending on the available resources and time to prepare the plan. The local planning commission/board is charged with the responsibility of preparing the draft plan. Please see the Maryland Department of Planning's "How Co​mprehensive Plans are Adopted​" webpage for more information on the local adoption process and the role that state agencies play in the 60-day review process. Jurisdictions should consult with their attorney's office on local notification requirements. However, Land Use Article § 3-203(b)(2) requires that the planning commission publish at least one notice of the public hearing at which the draft comprehensive plan or amendment will be considered in a newspaper of general circulation in the community. It does not mandate a timing for that notification, but jurisdictions should consult with their attorney's office for more information on legal requirements.

How do the comprehensive plan requirements differ for Charter and Non-charter counties, as well as municipalities?

Title 10 of the Local Government Article delegates powers to nine charter counties (Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Cecil, Dorchester, Frederick, Harford, Howard, Talbot and Wicomico),and seven code home rule counties that have elected to exercise these powers (Allegany, Caroline, Charles, Kent, Queen Anne’s and Worcester). A code county is be treated as a charter county for purposes of § 1–401 of the Land Use Article. Division II of the Land Use Article does the same for Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties.

Charter counties are required to include the following elements in their comprehensive plans:
   (i) a development regulations element;
   (ii) a housing element;
   (iii) a sensitive areas element;
   (iv) a transportation element; and
   (v) a water resources element.
If current geological information is available, the plan shall include a mineral resources element.
The planning commission for a charter county may include in the plan a priority preservation area element developed in accordance with § 2-518 of the Agriculture Article.

Title 3 of the Land Use Article requires Non-charter counties and municipalities to include the following elements in their comprehensive plans:
(1)(i) a community facilities element;
    (ii) an area of critical State concern element;
    (iii) a goals and objectives element;
    (iv) a housing element;
    (v) a land use element;
    (vi) a development regulations element;
    (vii) a sensitive areas element;
    (viii) a transportation element; and
    (ix) a water resources element.
(2) If current geological information is available, the plan shall include a mineral resources element.
(3) The plan for a municipal corporation that exercises zoning authority shall include a municipal growth element.
(4) The plan for a county that is located on the tidal waters of the State shall include a fisheries element.

§ 3-102​ describes additional permitted elements ​

How do the requirements for a comprehensive plan amendment differ from those for a new comprehensive plan?

While the level of complexity between comprehensive plan updates and amendments may vary, the public notice and state submission requirements are the same. Both require submission to the Maryland Department of Planning (Planning) at least 60 days prior to the planning commission or board public hearing and the inclusion of state agency comments in the public record. In certain instances, (i.e., a tier map​), Planning may be able to expedite a review, but jurisdictions should confirm this possibility with Planning prior to submission, as the department cannot guarantee that it will review a comprehensive plan or its amendment in fewer than 60 days. Local governing bodies are responsible for approving an amendment and incorporating it in the comprehensive plan. All amendments must comply with state requirements in the same manner as the initial adoption of the comprehensive plan or plan update. For small area plans or elements developed separately, Planning suggests that jurisdictions clearly incorporate these subordinate/related plans by reference into the main comprehensive plan.

What stakeholders should be involved in the comprehensive planning process?

Stakeholders involved in the comprehensive planning process should include a wide variety of partners. The planning staff and planning commission are the most active and are best situated to initiate the outreach effort. Jurisdictions should also recruit and engage active members from the community who have an interest in the future, such as neighborhood groups, civic organizations, and the business community. This should include a variety of engagement methods including online and in-person meetings, surveys, and forums, as well as reports distributed for feedback. These reports might include data and existing conditions analyses, a review of the implementation of the existing comprehensive plan and those components that still apply to the community, and a summary of community feedback. Planning consultants also may be involved in the planning process, especially if a jurisdiction contracts out certain elements of their plan to a private firm. A special advisory committee may be formed in some instances, which can help break down plans into specific parts or elements, to which smaller groups are assigned. This can enable a plan to include the personal touch of committee members of different backgrounds coming together to review and make suggestions for specific elements that interest them. This helps create a more detailed, personal, and informative plan.

What is an existing conditions analysis? Why is it important for a comprehensive plan?

The existing conditions analysis is a “snapshot” of a community's current situation and historical trends, with a focus on those aspects most directly related to planning, such as population and demographics, land use, zoning, transportation circulation, existing and planned water/sewer infrastructure, housing trends, community facilities, workforce/economic development, and others. An existing conditions analysis is designed to inform a community where it is and the path it took to get there. A new or updated comprehensive plan should not upend everything and start anew. It must begin with what exists and build upon that foundation, pursuing the vision, goals, and objectives outlined as part of the comprehensive planning process. Because of this, an existing conditions analysis should be a transparent and truthful consideration of the strengths and needs of a community. This typically involves looking at the community's growth trends and consumption of land for various uses over time. It should also include an inventory of current land uses and zoning districts by acreage, community facilities by the population they serve, and the current and remaining capacity of infrastructure. An existing conditions analysis does not need to be only numbers either. It may include a Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats (SWOT) analysis, which is an exercise that often involves the planning commission, staff, and other stakeholders. A community cannot effectively determine the direction it wants to take in a comprehensive plan until it understands its current condition​, as well as the forces and decisions that led it there.

How does a jurisdiction incorporate the twelve planning visions into a comprehensive plan?

The 12 visions​ are mandatory requirements of the comprehensive plan and should be incorporated into the comprehensive plan along with other locally developed visions of jurisdictions. Often, the state visions are listed in comprehensive plans with no demonstration of their incorporation in the larger document is referenced beyond the listing. Other comprehensive plans incorporate the visions as a point-by-point breakdown followed by a discussion of how the visions have been considered. Some plans incorporate the visions by reference and talk about the specific visions within the chapters or various elements of a plan. The state does not mandate a specific way that the visions be addressed in a plan, but state code requires that a comprehensive plan implement the visions. The Maryland Department of Planning recommends that jurisdictions consider creative ways to incorporate and reference the state visions throughout their comprehensive plans, as opposed to simply listing them in the introduction and stating that the plan implements them. By taking a creative approach to how the plan includes the visions, the comprehensive plan will be more engaging and better communicate the desired intent of the plan to stakeholders.

When is the *ideal* time in the local process for a jurisdiction to submit their comprehensive plan update for 60 day MDP review?

The jurisdiction submits the plan to the Maryland Department of Planning (Planning) prior to adoption, but exactly when is variable, as Planning recognizes that local processes differ across the state. At a minimum, a non-charter county or municipality must send it to Planning at least 60 days prior to the planning commission (PC)​ public hearing. Charter counties are encouraged to voluntarily submit their draft plans for 60-day review. The department recommends that jurisdictions go through the entire planning process, including public outreach, analysis, scenario development, visioning, goal setting, etc.; including multiple PC worksessions and drafts, before sending the draft plan to Planning for the 60-day review. The draft plan submitted to Planning for review should be a complete document, fully vetted by the PC and recommended for submission to Planning to initiate the 60-day review process. The Land Use Article does not require a formal vote to transmit the draft plan to Planning, but some form of public acknowledgement that this is the draft plan to be reviewed by Planning should occur. At the same time the draft plan is forwarded to Planning, the local planning staff or PC should forward the draft plan to adjacent jurisdictions for review and comment, i.e. municipalities should send the draft plan to their county.

Planning also recommends that a jurisdiction leave a buffer between the end of the 60 days and the PC public hearing during which Planning's comments are submitted as part of the public record. That way, staff and the PC will have time to review and consider state agency comments and develop any suggestions on needed changes prior to the PC public hearing. During or after the public hearing, the PC may vote to recommend approval to the legislative body or continue working on it prior to voting at a later date and sending it to the legislative body.  The most important thing to note is that the legislative body may adopt, modify, remand, or disapprove the draft that the PC sends to them. They don't need to send it back to the PC if they decide to amend it, but if they do send it back, the PC needs to work on it and hold another public hearing. However, Planning only reviews the original PC version sent to the department as part of the 60-day review process. Planning does not review a later amended version, either by the PC or legislative body. For municipal and non-charter county statutory requirements, please review Land Use Article §3–204​.

What are the typical steps a planning commission follows prior to recommending a comprehensive plan to the legislative body.

Once a planning commission/board had completed its preparation of the draft plan and prior to submitting it to the legislative body for approval, non-charter counties and municipalities must first submit the draft documents to the Maryland Department of Planning at least 60 days prior to the planning commission/board public hearing. (See FAQ #9 for more information on the 60-day review process.) After the 60-day review, the planning commission/ board will hold its pubic hearing to take public testimony. When Planning submits the state agency comments, they are requested to be made part of the public record for the hearing. After the public hearing and making all appropriate modifications to the draft plan based on the state agency comments and other public testimony, the planning commission/board will take action to recommend adoption of the draft plan to the legislative body. Charter counties follow a similar deliberative process, and are encouraged to voluntarily submit their draft documents to the Maryland Department of Planning for review.

What state or other funding sources are available to help a jurisdiction complete a comprehensive plan?

The overall cost for a plan can be daunting for some jurisdictions. At times funding sources from different state agencies, such as through the Department of Housing and Community Development's Community Development Block Group (CDBG) Program, may be available to assist with certain elements of comprehensive plans. CDBG funded plans may be limited to jurisdictions that can demonstrate the plan would have a substantial benefit to low- and moderate-income households in their community. At other times specific elements, such as the Sensitive Areas Element, may be funded by the Department of Natural Resources through its Maryland Chesapeake and Coastal Grants Gateway​ (Grants Gateway). In the case of receiving partial funding to prepare a comprehensive plan element, some jurisdictions may contract out select elements, (i.e. the municipal growth element or water resource element), of their plan and then complete the rest of the plan internally.

Why might a jurisdiction decide to procure the services of a consultant when developing a comprehensive plan?

A jurisdiction may hire a consultant to complete specific elements or complete the entire comprehensive plan. This may be because the jurisdiction does not have planning staff that it can dedicate to comprehensive plan development or because it does not have staff with the expertise needed to complete specific plan components. Comprehensive plans are technical documents that often require calculations and analysis that may be unfamiliar to staff or planning commissioners. Some consultants or planning firms may specialize in comprehensive plans and market their services directly to jurisdictions. Another reason is that a jurisdiction may be able to access funding opportunities for plan development. Funding resources may limit eligibility based on the size of the jurisdiction or its median household income; so not all may qualify depending on the specific grants and funding cycles. (See other question about funding)

What should be included in a comprehensive plan consultant request for proposals (RFP)?

If a jurisdiction wants to procure consulting services to complete an entire comprehensive plan or update, the Request for Proposal (RFP) should include all state required elements of a complete comprehensive plan. If a jurisdiction only needs assistance with one or a few required elements, the RFP should specify the requirements and expectations for those elements. It should also include any special planning features or recommendations the town or municipality wants to consider. It should include desired meeting (public participation) requirements as well as a description of the expected final product and anticipated review process, which may include the submission of the draft plan for review and comment to different state agencies. RFPs should also include background information on the jurisdiction, as well as a recommended state agency reference list to ensure that consultants consider and address required elements accordingly. Maryland Department of Planning staff is available to help with the development of RFPs. The Maryland Department of Planning also encourages jurisdictions to discuss RFP development with their jurisdiction's attorney.

How can a jurisdiction publicize its comprehensive plan request for proposals to ensure a good response to the solicitation?

A jurisdiction can market a comprehensive plan through direct mailings to consulting firms, publish the advertisements in the local newspaper, or post the RFP on Maryland's APA website​. To get as complete a listing of potential consulting firms, a jurisdiction may check with the local bidders list that some counties and municipalities have established. When a jurisdiction is in the process of developing the RFP or in the solicitation stage, the jurisdiction should be careful contacting prospective consulting firm to avoid potentially invalidating the consultant selection process or having unselected consultants challenging the awarding the contract to a particular vendor. Working closely with the jurisdiction's procurement office and attorney is strongly recommended.

What is the difference between a 5-Year Report and a 10-Year Review? What if a jurisdiction does not think an update is necessary?

Jurisdictions must complete the local jurisdiction annual report and submit it to the Maryland Department of Planning every year by July 1. If it is the fifth year after a comprehensive plan adoption, jurisdictions must complete a 5-year implementation review (5-Year Report), which the Maryland Department of Planning suggests be submitted alongside the annual report. The 5-Year Report is also referred to as the Mid-Cycle Report, which assesses comprehensive plan implementation progress. A planning commission may want to conduct a 10-Year Review of the comprehensive plan after decennial census data becomes available, but with the annual release of 5-year American Community Survey (ACS) data, jurisdictions are not bound by the decennial census publication dates. In addition, a 10-year review does not necessarily mean any changes are required, as the currently adopted comprehensive plan may remain the best plan for a community, especially one that has seen limited to no growth. This is a local issue, and the planning commission should determine if the plan continues to meet the needs of the jurisdiction or if the plan requires updates to address a changing community, such as residential growth, infrastructure needs, or economic development. Please note that any new comprehensive plan requirements, adopted by the Maryland General Assembly since the adoption of a jurisdiction's last comprehensive plan, must be incorporated into the next comprehensive plan as part of the 10-year review/update. The 2019 passing of HB 1045 (Housing Element) is such an example. Findings on which sections must be revised/updated, or if the entire plan requires an update, can be determined based on findings of the comprehensive plan review by the local jurisdiction. The Maryland Department of Planning recommends that planning commissions use the checklists in the Managing Maryland's Growth: Transitioning to the Comprehensive Plan 10-Year Review Cycle​ (starting on page 8) to determine if they should update the comprehensive plan. There is no requirement for a jurisdiction to hold a public hearing, but they are required to report to their legislative body on whether the plan is adequate. There should be some formal communication of that assessment to the legislative body. They should also let the Maryland Department of Planning know that this assessment has been completed. This can be done either through the annual reporting process or a separate letter to the department. The Maryland Department of Planning will then reset the 10 year clock for the next review.

What plans impact or are impacted by a comprehensive plan?

Many different plans are impacted by and have impact on the local comprehensive plan. One of the main plans that intersects with a comprehensive plan is a water and sewer master or functional plan (WSP), which is controlled by counties in Maryland. The Maryland Department of Planning (Planning) reviews WSPs and their amendments in partnership with the Maryland Department of the Environment, for consistency with comprehensive plans. Environment Article section §9–506 requires that a county, prior adopting a WSP or WSP amendment, certify that it is consistent with the county comprehensive plan. Consistency is based on the comprehensive plan's policies and strategies for serving areas within a county and/or municipality with public water and sewer, water and sewer infrastructure development, and responsiveness to public health and safety concerns, such as for failing septic systems. For example, if the comprehensive plan indicates that all growth areas should be served with public water and sewer, and the water and sewer plan proposes serving such areas, then the two plans are consistent. If, however, a water and sewer plan or an amendment propose serving an agricultural area not planned for growth, then the two plans would be considered inconsistent. Planning encourages all counties and municipalities consider adding policies for water and sewer service connections to address public health and safety concerns in their comprehensive plans. This will help the Planning determine the WSP as being consistent with the comprehensive plan when an area, even an agricultural one not intended for growth, needs to be connected to public water and sewer to address such environmental concerns. Planning recommends that counties also consider consistency with municipal comprehensive plans as they draft WSPs and their amendments. WSPs and comprehensive plans often refer to one another, both in the plans themselves and in supporting documents.

Comprehensive plans also impact Priority Funding Area (PFA) certification, as PFA's must be in a locally designated growth area as reflected in the comprehensive plan. PFA designation facilitates access to state growth-related funding for transportation, water, and sewer infrastructure, neighborhood revitalization, and housing assistance programs. If an area that a jurisdiction wishes to be PFA is not designated as a growth area in the comprehensive plan, a comprehensive plan amendment may be necessary. State Finance and Procurement Article 5-7B-03 sets the guidelines for these requests. The Local Government Article §4-415 also requires that proposed annexed lands be included in the municipality's designated growth areas, as shown in the Municipal Growth Element (MGE), prior to annexing the property. If the property considered for annexation is not in the MGE this may be grounds from someone to challenge the annexation. Planning reviews all proposed annexations for consistency of the comprehensive plan as part of Planning's duties under properties as part of its for inclusion in a municipal growth area. The Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development also requires Sustainable Communities Action Plans​ to be consistent with a jurisdiction's comprehensive plan. Economic development plans, as well as capital improvement plans, may also overlap with and help implement comprehensive plans.

If a jurisdiction revises a draft comprehensive plan, does it need to conduct another planning commission public hearing on the revisions?

First, in determining when to hold a public hearing and how many should be done in consultation with the jurisdiction's attorney. If a jurisdiction revises a draft comprehensive plan or amendment after receiving the Maryland Department of Planning's (Planning) comments as part of the 60-day review and prior to the planning commission public hearing, there is time for the public to respond to any proposed additional changes included in the draft comprehensive plan amendment, and therefore no need to schedule another public hearing. Changes to a draft comprehensive plan or amendment that are a result of the public hearing also do not necessarily require another public hearing if they are part of the deliberative process addressing comments made during the public hearing process; however, to promote an open dialogue with the community the planning commission may choose to hold another one. The deliberation of those changes by staff and the planning commission would need to occur in an open meeting. The final recommendation to the legislative body can occur weeks after the public hearing - after considering all the comments made during the public hearing and making any associated changes to the comp plan amendment.

If a jurisdiction revises a draft comprehensive plan or amendment, but not in response to Planning's comments or comments raised during the public hearing, and the revision is proposed after the public hearing, then the planning commission should consult its attorney. A determination would need to be made whether the change is considered substantive - that's a legal determination made between the planning commission and its attorney. If the revision is simply a page or figure renumbering, then that probably would not be considered substantive. If the planning commission wants to make a change and it is considered substantive, then a new public hearing with an opportunity for the public to voice comments on the proposed additional change may be advisable. But the planning commission should make this determination with its attorney.

Is there a place to view comprehensive plans from around the state?

Planning’s website hosts all municipal and county comprehensive plans.​ These plans are available to be viewed by anyone and are a valuable resource for jurisdictions to consider when updating their own plans. The webpage includes a link to jurisdictional home pages as well as a direct link to the plan itself. By clicking "View Draft Plans and Comments", website users can also review draft plans and amendments as well as state agency 60-day review comments.

Is a planning commission required to send a revised draft of a comprehensive plan back to the Maryland Department of Planning if it made changes following the department's 60-day review?

No, a planning commission is not required to send the draft back after the addressing state agency comments received as part of the 60-day review process. However, the Maryland Department of Planning (Planning) requests that jurisdictions inform the department when a plan or amendment is adopted and send final versions of a comprehensive plan to Planning for posting on the comprehensive plans webpage.

What are the local legislative body's options when the planning commission recommends a comprehensive plan for approval? If the legislative body sends comprehensive plan back to the planning commission, what are the commission's responsibilities?

Upon receiving a draft comprehensive plan or amendment from the planning commission recommending approval, a local legislative body has the option to adopt, modify, disapprove, or remand the plan. If disapproved or remanded, the planning commission must hold another public hearing before recommending a new version for approval to the legislative body, but does not have to send the new draft to the state for another 60-day review. The legislative body can modify a comprehensive plan without sending it back to the planning commission, per changes to state code for non-charter counties and municipalities with the passing of HB 919/ SB 551 in 2015. The legislative body does have to conduct a public hearing on the draft comprehensive plan and any associated revisions being considered before adopting a modified comprehensive plan. For non-charter counties and municipalities, the legislative body has 90 days from the date of the planning commission's certification of its draft comprehensive plan recommendation to take action (i.e., approve, modify, remand or deny) and if no action is taken the planning commission's recommended comprehensive plan shall be considered approved. If the legislative body remands the draft comprehensive plan to the planning commission, the commission may amend the plan only to address individual comments, questions, or concerns of the legislative body. Once the amendments are made and another public hearing held, the planning commission must send the new draft comprehensive plan back to the legislative body for review. The legislative body council may then once again adopt, modify, disapprove, or remand the draft plan. It is strongly recommended that the planning commission work closely with the jurisdiction's attorney to navigate the back-and-forth between the planning commission and the legislative body when a draft plan/amendment is remanded back to the planning commission for further amendment.

How can a jurisdiction follow General Assembly legislative changes to comprehensive plans?

Jurisdictions must keep up with current changes in legislature, and the Maryland Department of Planning strives to inform jurisdictions of legislative changes that impact comprehensive plan requirements through its newsletter, Planning Practice Monthly​. New legislation may require jurisdictions to amend their existing plans, but typically the General Assembly gives local governments ample time to incorporate the required changes into their comprehensive plan. In the case of recent legislative changes, jurisdictions have been required to include the new provisions in the next plan update if the currently adopted plan does not already meet the requirements, such as with 2019's HB 1045, which added a housing element requirement for all comprehensive plans. As a reminder, all public meeting and notice requirements must be followed when amending or updating a comprehensive plan.

What are some common implementation measures for comprehensive plans?

Common implementation measures of a comprehensive plan are changing the land use and zoning within a jurisdiction to meet the growth and development goals established in the plan. These are two of the most powerful implementation tools and may be completed at the jurisdiction wide or smaller area planning scale. The Maryland Department of Planning (Planning) reminds jurisdictions that Land Use Article § 4-202 requires that zoning be "in accordance with the plan", meaning that zoning should be generally consistent with the comprehensive plan. Planning notes this is not only a state requirement, but also a general planning best practice. Jurisdictions may also set certain benchmarks against which they can measure plan implementation success over the five to ten years following the adoption of a comprehensive plan. Benchmarks and measurement may be strengthened by prioritizing implementation measures, both in terms of when a jurisdiction will pursue them and their overall impact on plan objectives. Implementation measures should also address funding. Funding strategies might include aligning the Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) with plan priorities (infrastructure, redevelopment) and developing traditional financing (e.g., bonds, impact fees, real estate transfer taxes) and/or innovative financing (e.g., tax increment financing, public-private partnerships, housing/community trusts) mechanisms. Jurisdictions should also consider pursuing regional, state, and federal grant funding and loans. These are often only accessible if jurisdictions secure certifications (Priority Funding Areas, Sustainable Communities, Enterprise Zone, Maryland Main Street) above and beyond the completion of a comprehensive plan. Jurisdictions can also incentivize developers (both for-profit and non-profit) to help implement a comprehensive plan by providing tax and other financial incentives to develop land uses, projects, or programs that help implement the comprehensive plan. Planning encourages jurisdictions to work closely with partners to implement their comprehensive plans. If engaged early in the plan development process, stakeholder partners (i.e., non-profits, regional planning organizations, institutions of higher learning) will more likely be invested in plan implementation and willing to devote their own resources to ensure it is successful. The local governments are not solely responsible for plan implementation. Planning has developed many resources to help jurisdictions with comprehensive plan implementation, such as our comprehensive plans webpage, as well as Models & Guidelines planning documents and online resources, including those for Placing Jobs, Housing, Water Resources, Transit-Oriented Development, and many more.


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