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Three sets of studies recommended by county planning staff for the comprehensive plan will not move forward after Charles County Planning Commission members reached a tie vote, 3-3, on authorizing the studies.

Commission Chairman Courtney Edmonds and members Joe Tieger and Steve Bunker voted for the studies. Commission Vice Chairman Joe Richard and members Joan Jones and Lou Grasso voted against the studies.

Commission member Bob Mitchell was absent from Monday’s meeting.

The studies included a free ecosystem services study from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, a series of fiscal, economic and traffic studies through the National Center for Smart Growth Research and Education in College Park and a critique of the county’s water resources element from the Center for Watershed Protection.

The studies from the National Center for Smart Growth, a nonpartisan center that researches smart growth policies and related land use issues, would have included a fiscal impact analysis based on the merged scenario and the two previous land use scenarios presented at an open house in October, an employment and traffic subarea analysis based on the three scenarios, a cluster analysis for economic growth in activity centers on the three scenarios and potential market or economic conditions under which a viable transferable development rights program could take place in the county.

The water resources element, which the county approved in 2011 as an amendment to the 2006 comprehensive plan, recommends land use policies based on the impact on water resources.

The water resources element received criticism from several people when it went before the county commissioners for a public hearing in March. Critics said it lacked scientific data;the fact that the WRE was meant to be at the beginning of the comprehensive plan process, not an amendment at the end; and the fact that none of the land use scenarios in the WRE met nutrient pollution standards for the Mattawoman Creek.

Commission members argued with one another about the comprehensive plan before and after the vote.

Jones asked for the purpose of additional studies and the benefits to county citizens.

“The purpose is to provide as much information as possible to consider the issues raised in the public process. The benefits are to improve the quality of planning. The issues discussed have been noted throughout the process that they should be addressed,” county Planning Director Steve Ball said.

Ball said the studies also would help to develop consensus among commission members.

“The objective is to have all information needed to make a decision,” Director of Planning & Growth Management Peter Aluotto said.

Jones questioned the need for any additional studies.

“Many of the comments indicated that citizens did not feel the need for further studies,” Jones said.

Ball said that he did not get that impression from the comments.

Bunker agreed with Ball.

“Staff has summarized the comments. One hundred twenty-seven people recommended a fiscal impact study,” Bunker said.

Tieger said that the studies were warranted. Specifically, he mentioned the free ecosystems services study, which would assess the economic value of stormwater and other services that natural resources provide.

Tieger said that the services might need to be replaced at the public’s cost if development removes the resources.

“There are valuable bits of information needed to make good decisions for development. I strongly favor staff’s recommendations for further studies,” Tieger said.

Grasso recommended that the commission look at the merged scenario, move forward with the items in the scenario that the commission agrees upon and then pursue additional studies on items with which the commission disagrees.

Richard pointed to a motion passed with a 4-3 vote at the commission’s last meeting Jan. 23 to have two meetings to work on the comprehensive plan in February and to have the plan ready for the county commissioners’ hearing by July 31.

“The whole intent of the motion was to move toward a preferred scenario. Then to draft the plan,” Richard said.

Mitchell made the motion at the last meeting, but was not present at Monday’s meeting.

Tieger said that under Article 66B, which is the state law governing planning policy, the planning commission has the responsibility to account for the comprehensive plan’s “fiscal management” and that the 2006 comprehensive plan does not study the fiscal impact of growth.

“To implement the plan, the planning commission shall periodically recommend to the appropriate public officials ... financing programs,” the passage states.

Tieger also said that there are major questions about growth and adequate water supply that are still unanswered.

Edmonds said he supported Tieger’s motion for additional studies, and proceeded to voice his concerns about the “integrity of the public process” used to develop the comprehensive plan.

Edmonds in particular was concerned about form letters linked to www.savelandvalues.com and the website’s association with representatives of developers.

“Do you think the majority of comments represent the will of the Charles County community in general or the will of the Charles County development community in particular?” Edmonds asked.

Tieger said the studies proposed could address issues raised by the website, such as concerns about decreasing property values and increases in crime, which Tieger said are not a foregone conclusion.

After the failed vote, Richard said he wanted a more objective group of researchers than the state Department of Natural Resources and the National Center for Smart Growth.

Richard also said the process should move forward to a preferred scenario by evaluating the merged scenario.

Ball recommended conflict resolution and mediation for the commission, as he was concerned that any plan that moved forward with a 4-3 vote would fail.

Ball clarified later that if the commission reached no consensus on major issues, then the comprehensive plan might not be acceptable to the county commissioners or the public, as it would reflect division on the major issues of the comprehensive plan.

On the county’s website for the comprehensive plan update, www.charlescountyplan.org, it states, “The Comprehensive Plan update process is now underway, and public input is essential to producing an enhanced Plan that reflects community consensus and identifies ways to maintain Charles County as an ideal place to live, work, shop, and recreate.”

The commission agreed to look at some of the major issues raised in the merged scenario and look at the 2006 plan goals based on those issues at its next meeting.

pwarner@somdnews.com