EASTON — The town planning commission will take a comprehensive look at Easton’s growth areas, last updated in the 2010 comprehensive plan.

The decision came as the result of a request to amend the comprehensive plan to change the priority classification for several properties on Chapel Road near U.S. Route 50.

The three-level priority system was developed for the town’s 2004 comprehensive plan and continued in the 2010 plan.

The 2010 plan notes:

“Priority 1 Areas are classified as Boundary Refinement Areas. In most cases they correspond to areas that are already developed in Talbot County and they are deemed appropriate for consideration for Annexation during the life of this Plan. Priority 2 Areas are referred to as Intermediate Growth Areas and Priority 3 Areas are referred to as Long Range Growth Areas. Neither is envisioned as being necessary to develop in order to accommodate any growth during the upcoming Planning period.

“... while the Growth Areas Map depicts 1,200 acres of land classified as Boundary Refinement Area, this raw number is misleading as only a relative few acres are largely undeveloped. Growth over the next planning period (i.e. until 2015) is expected to occur in areas already within the corporate limits of Town, or in Boundary Refinement Areas that are annexed into Town. The Intermediate and Long Range Growth Areas are not envisioned to be needed to accommodate the growth of the next six years.”

The Easton Planning Commission voted 3-2 Thursday, May 16, to direct the town planning staff to review the lands designated for priority level 1, 2 and 3 in the 2010 plan and to provide a recommendation on reclassification.

Planning Commission Vice Chairman Paul Weber and Commissioners Don Cochran and Victoria McAndrews voted in favor of deferring action on the request by Greg Gannon on behalf of two Gannon family businesses to change the priority of nearly 150 acres from priorities 2 and 3 to priority 1. Chairman Talbot Bone and Commissioner Richard Tettelbaum voted against a deferment.

Before the majority opted to defer the request, Bone and Tettelbaum voted in favor of recommending approval of the comprehensive plan amendment to the town council; Weber, McAndrews, and Cochran voted against that motion.

The Gannon Family LLC owns a 145-acre parcel that is divided between priority 2 and priority 3. Meadow Farm Joint Venture LLC also owns an 11-acre parcel with frontage on Chapel Road. The town also included two adjacent parcels, totaling more than 32 acres, in the proposed reclassification to priority 1.

Greg Gannon told the planning commission last Thursday there are no plans to seek annexation and development of the properties in the near future, but he said the timing of any such request would depend on the real estate market.

Owners of properties recently annexed into Easton typically have sought a priority classification change first and then annexation after the property has been listed as priority 1, Town Planner Lynn Thomas said. He recalled one property owner seeking annexation in recent years who did not first request a change in priority level. That annexation was denied by the town council as being inconsistent with the comprehensive plan.

Town Attorney Sharon Van Emburgh also said having a property in the priority 1 classification did not “compel” the town to annex that property if an annexation request is submitted.

Alexa Seip of Easton was the only person to speak during the public hearing for the comprehensive plan amendment.

“Why leapfrog from 3 to 1?” Seip asked.

She suggested the planning commission recommend approval of reclassifying any portions of the four parcels that are priority 3 to priority 2.

“Wait until you go through the comprehensive plan process” and then consider properties for priority 1 designation, she said.

The discussion among planning commissioners and staffers largely focused on whether the amendment proposed by Gannon should be considered on its own or as part of a broader look at the town’s growth areas.

At the time of its approval, the 2010 plan focused on a six-year planning timeframe. But during that period, the state amended the law governing comprehensive plans to require towns and counties to develop those every 10 years, rather than every six, and allowed the first of those 10-year plans to be aligned with the release of U.S. Census statistics.

As a result, the town’s next comprehensive plan likely won’t be approved until 2022 or 2023, after the 2020 census, Thomas said.

When the 2010 plan was adopted, the town mapped about 1,200 acres as priority 1, with 423 acres in a residential zoning classification, Bone said. Since then, the town has annexed about 600 acres classified as priority 1.

The request being considered would add 188 acres to priority 1, still well below the 1,200 acres in the 2010 plan, Bone noted.

Staffers also said that when the 2010 comprehensive plan was being developed, the town was coming off a number of years of rapid growth. But growth slowed drastically soon after.

“We were talking about mechanisms to slow growth and then the market did that,” Van Emburgh said.

“Last year was the busiest year since 2010,” Thomas said. But the town’s growth last year of more than 1 percent was “nowhere near” the long-term average of 3% and the record growth years in the mid to late 2000s that exceeded that average.

Gannon also said that, based on the growth then, planners were worried in 2010 about reaching capacity in the town’s wastewater treatment plant by 2020. The plant is at about 50% capacity now.

McAndrews said she was concerned about granting the request now without looking at the “entire big picture for the town.”

Tettelbaum said the priority system and a process allowing someone to request amendments to the comprehensive plan are there for a reason.

“It’s good to have a comprehensive picture, but planning needs to occur more than every 15 years,” he said.

Weber agreed a decision should not wait until the next comprehensive plan, but said the criteria for deciding whether to change a property to priority 1 was not clear.

“I’m not in favor of changing priority levels based on a request,” he said. But the town also shouldn’t wait until the next comprehensive plan, which will be more than a decade after the last one.

Cochran agreed, saying the town is well past the six-year planning window envisioned in 2010.

“I don’t think it needs to be a long, drawn-out consideration,” Cochran said.

“I think Mr. Gannon’s request is a logical one, it makes common sense” from the standpoint of development and the town’s boundary, he said.

Thomas said the big picture the staff and the planning commission will need to look at is how much land is needed for how much future growth.

“Was 1,200 (acres) the appropriate amount” to have in priority 1?, Thomas asked. “Is 600? Is that too low?”

He said the planning staff should be able to review the growth areas and the priority areas and present something to the planning commission within three months.

At that time, if the recommendation from staff is different than the current request, the town will have to advertise the proposed amendment to the comprehensive plan at least 60 days in advance of any public hearing.

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