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Balanced Growth Initiative members and supporters came in large numbers Monday night to criticize the Charles County Planning Commission chairman for comments he made at the commission’s last meeting, following his decision to push most of the public forum to the end of the meeting.

Charles McPherson, a La Plata resident and a BGI representative, criticized Chairman Courtney Edmonds for comparing arguments the group made about items in the plan to tactics used against African-Americans when demographics were changing in Columbus, Ohio.

“You were comparing us to thugs that are racist in Columbus, Ohio. That is totally inappropriate for those in your position,” McPherson said.

Edmonds also questioned at the last meeting whether the group’s comments reflected the will of the citizens or the development community, which drew ire from McPherson and other speakers at Monday’s meeting.

McPherson said, “You say we are developers. That is false. Developers did start raising awareness about the issues, but there are others around” who belong to the group, including farmers, landowners, real estate agents and bankers.

McPherson is the chief operating officer of Facchina Group of Cos. in La Plata.

“Our group is diverse. Yes we have the people from the dreaded development community. But do you know how dangerous it is to characterize a group of people?” McPherson asked.

“We are not here to debate our positions, but I demand respect for our organization,” he said.

McPherson also questioned the impartiality of Edmonds and commission member Joe Tieger, and criticized county planning staff for not posting the groups’ comments online initially.

The comments, which came from www.savelandvalues.com after an open house meeting on the plan, were not on the comprehensive plan update website, www.charlescountyplan.org, until after a Dec. 15 meeting where BGI members came forward with copies of 567 emails, asking for the emails to be posted.

“It appears we’re the enemy of the government because of a difference of opinion. If so, what’s next? We deserve to be treated fairly,” McPherson said.

McPherson acknowledged that county planning staff eventually posted the comments, but criticized the fact that the comments were put in a separate category, not among comments supporting a second scenario.

McPherson also criticized Commissioner Ken Robinson (D) for posting an email from BGI and expressing his criticism of the email.

“[Commissioner] Ken Robinson is trying to thwart our efforts on Facebook. That’s inappropriate,” McPherson said.

“No one has the right to suppress our views. What is Mr. Robinson’s next step? Will he try to thwart our efforts? No more games; it’s OK to have a difference of opinion,” McPherson said.

Robinson responded Tuesday, saying that McPherson was incorrect in saying that Robinson attacked him on Facebook, saying he had not mentioned McPherson on his page.

Robinson said that BGI needs a “boogeyman,” to whip up support, and Edmonds was taking heat from the group in person while he was taking it virtually.

“I am happy to join Chairman Courtney Edmonds as a target of those who don’t believe in education, science and, yes, even change,” Robinson said.

After five minutes, Edmonds told McPherson to finish his comments, as he was alotted five minutes as a representative of an organization, according to the commission’s rules of practice and procedure.

Commission member Lou Grasso said, “Rules? They are our citizens. They deserve to be heard. Their views are very important.”

Several audience members applauded. Two people yelled, “Let him speak,” while another yelled, “Rules.”

Edmonds agreed to let McPherson finish his comments, but moved the public appearance section to the end of the meeting, which required several speakers who signed up to wait.

“I think that’s disrespectful that you’re moving the speakers to the end of the agenda. You had comments about them. Let them speak,” commission member Joan Jones said.

McPherson said that BGI is working with the Charles County Farm Bureau and will not be satisfied until the farmers group is happy.

McPherson also said BGI has received support from the Charles County Chamber of Commerce.

“We may be wrong sometimes, but we will be heard. No more games of censorship. It’s time to show order,” McPherson said, asking for a show of hands for those who agreed with his statements.

A majority of people in the audience raised their hands and applause followed.

Later Edmonds proposed a motion to request funding for a fiscal impact study that looks at land values and citizens rights, growth, prosperity and evaluate relevant impacts.

Edmonds cited BGI literature that asked for studies about fiscal impact, growth and prosperity, job creation and other studies and said he strongly agrees with the group on that point.

Grasso and commission Vice Chairman Joe Richard both called the motion “out of order.”

Tieger said, “It was proposed to have those studies done a couple months ago and my colleagues voted against economic studies or any studies, feeling that they had enough information.”

Grasso said the studies were meant to drag out the vote and the development of the comprehensvie plan.

After the commission finished its agenda for the night, more BGI members spoke, but citizens who supported Edmonds and disagreed with the actions of the commission’s majority also spoke.

Nanjemoy resident Cornell Posey, who also is a developer and whose plan to develop affordable housing in Nanjemoy recently was rejected by the county commissioners, blasted Edmonds.

“I have three problems: property rights, jobs and you, Mr. Chairman,” Posey said.

He gave an example of someone who has 50 acres in Nanjemoy could develop 16 lots on their land by right, but argued that a proposal for a Priority Preservation Area would have reduced that capacity to two lots.

A previous proposal of the PPA gave an option for downzoning the area to one unit per 20 acres to preserve the land from development.

The commission rejected a PPA proposal Nov. 21 that did not include downzoning.

Indian Head resident Daniel Thomas criticized Edmonds’ actions during the meeting, such as his deferral of public appearances to later in the agenda and leaving for five minutes for a break when the commission refused to take a break.

“That was unprofessional, and unfair to the citizens,” Thomas said.

Tom Nelson, president of NDG Communications in La Plata, said that comments sent from www.savelandvalues.com were sent by individuals, not through a “robo-call” process.

“The website allowed them to write messages. It was merely a conduit for our customers,” Nelson said.

Edmonds linked NDG Communications to the development community through the organization’s registered agent, Steve Scott of Scott Law Group in La Plata and the organization’s clients.

Scott previously responded, saying while the information is public, it was inappropriate for Edmonds to insinuate there was something improper about the connections.

David Lines, a La Plata resident and farmer, said that downzoning in the comprehensive plan would hurt his ability to realize the value of his land.

“We suffer loss as landowners. Our only chance of keeping it is to get value from the TDR program to pay estate taxes; it’s our only chance to keep our property, otherwise, we are going to lose it,” Lines said.

Indian Head resident and BGI member Tanja Carter said that the intent of BGI was not to use scare tactics, but about educating citizens.

“We are hearing a different message and are waking up people to the potential of decisions that could affect their land values,” Carter said.

Nanjemoy resident Wayne Winker saw the situation differently.

“From being in those [comprehensive plan update] sessions, people in Charles County think that growth has been too fast the last 15 years, and in the last few years growth has been slow,” he said.

“In the words of Bill Clinton ‘It’s the economy, stupid.’ The economy has slowed down growth, not the comprehensive plan,” Winker said.

Winker said if the county’s rules allow accelerated growth, growth will accelerate once the economy comes back.

“The question is how fast can we afford to grow. Schools are a major factor, roads are a major factor, but so is the environment. If you cut down forests, there are studies that have already been done that show there is a very high cost with replacing services these forest provide. We need to look at this.“

“I am concerned when the state says with continued growth, people will run out of water in 2030. If you take away my water, you take away the value of my home. Talk about taking away your property values,” Winker said.

Newburg resident Nancy Schertler said the commission did a disservice to the citizens by not requesting studies that many citizens wanted, including a fiscal impact study that BGI wanted, analyses on ecosystems and water supply.

The commission voted 4-3 Feb. 13 not to pursue any more studies related to the comprehensive plan.

Schertler said the commission members in opposition to the studies did not provide an adequate explanation for rejecting the advice of tax-supported county planners, who recommended a fiscal impact study from the National Center for Smart Growth Research and Education, an ecosystems services study and a critique of the county’s Water Resources Element, which guides land use decisions based on water quality and resources, from the Center for Watershed Protection.

Commission members responded to the public appearances after the meeting.

Edmonds responded in an email Tuesday morning. “The meeting was informative and emotional, but very disappointing. It was informative to me because it showed how uninformed many residents are about the real issues facing our county and the limited ability of the Planning Commission to address all of those issues.”

Richard said the commission is ready to go forward to develop the preferred scenario for the comprehensive plan and would continue to do its job.

“I think it was outrageous the way they were treated. They are the people we work for. The group only took 45 minutes. Why they were treated so unfairly and rudely by the chairman is beyond my comprehension,” Grasso said.

“Something needs to be done if we are to accomplish our task to have a more collegial atmosphere,” and also to develop a plan to bring a quality of life that citizens want.

pwarner@somdnews.com