- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
Environmentalists are upset with the Charles County Planning Commission over its recent decisions to retain 2006 land use policies in its 2012 comprehensive plan update, saying that the commission ignored findings in a report advocating additional protections for the Mattawoman Creek.
The Maryland Department of Natural Resources led the report’s development, releasing the report in mid-March. Additional state and federal agencies also contributed, including the Maryland Departments of Planning and Environments, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the state and federal highway administrations.
Environmentalists expressed their frustrations in a news release dated May 23 through the Smarter Growth Alliance of Charles County.
“This is yet another wake-up call for what fisheries scientists have called Maryland’s most productive tributary to the Bay,” Jim Long, president of the Mattawoman Watershed Society, said in the release. “This science-based report merits special attention because present land-use policies are harming the health and vitality of Mattawoman Creek as planning officials do nothing.”
The report, “The Case for Protection of the Watershed Resources of Mattawoman Creek: Recommendations and Management Initiatives to Protect the Mattawoman Ecosystem,” states that the Creek shows signs of impacts from human development, including the “loss of stream spawning sites with anadromous fish“ and “declining, but still good dissolved oxygen in the estuary.“
The report also states, “Fisheries Service monitoring indicates that Mattawoman Creek’s fish habitat has declined as impervious surface has increased beyond a threshold level.”
The report states that when impervious surfaces, pavement that does not allow water to pass through to the ground, exceed 10 percent in a watershed, “biodiversity and fisheries production are generally impaired and unlikely to reach former levels.”
The report states that according to the county’s Water Resource Element, passed in 2011, the Mattawoman Creek had 9.8 percent impervious surfaces, which was an increase from the 7.4 to 8.2 percent reported in 2003 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The report states that the county’s WRE’s scenarios, used to gauge the impact of development on water resources and quality, estimate that the impervious surfaces will increase in the 44,662 acre watershed to between 10.7 and 11.1 percent.
The watershed’s management plan, passed in 2003, estimated that buildout would result in a 22 percent average impervious surface in the watershed.
The report recommends protecting the creek’s stream valley designated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and recommended in the watershed’s managment plan published in 2003, downzoning rural conservation lands within the Mattawoman Creek watershed to a permitted density of one unit per 20 acres, removing the Mattawoman Creek watershed from the county’s Deferred Development District and implementing improvements to the county’s transferable development rights program.
The deferred development district is an area zoned at one unit per 10 acres as a means of holding land for future development needs of the county beyond 2040.
A TDR program governs the transfer of development rights from landowners to developers so that landowners receive compensation for preserving land and developers can develop at higher densities than normal in development areas.
On April 9, the Charles County Planning Commission voted 4-3 to adopt several policies from the 2006 comprehensive plan into the 2012 comprehensive plan update, including maintaining Bryans Road as a town center, maintaining the Deferred Development District and its one-unit-per-10-acre zoning density, not adopting the protection of the Mattawoman Creek stream valley with a one unit per 20 acre zoning and maintaining the density of rural areas at one unit per three acres.
Planning staff had recommended considering Bryans Road as a village, eliminating the deferred development district and instead protecting the Mattawoman Creek stream valley at a zoning density of one unit per 20 acres, in a plan scenario that combined elements of staff scenarios and public input. The scenario also recommended that most other stream valleys have a density of one unit per 10 acres in order to preserve water quality, and rural areas be zoned at one unit per five acres.
Charles County Planning Commission members responded to the criticism and report last week.
Commission Vice Chairman Joe Richard said “I think we’ve made it as clear to protect the Mattawoman as anyone in the county. We all agree the Mattawoman is a critical resource for the county and state.”
The dispute, Richard said, is whether the elimination of the DDD will impact the Mattawoman Creek.
Richard said that the idea to eliminate the DDD was a “draconian approach,” and that the 2006 plan put in safeguards to ensure the Creek was protected.
Richard said that the concern over the amount of impervious surfaces in the watershed will be addressed with the elimination of the cross-county connector, as development depending on the road will not go forward at this time.
Richard said, however, that given that the Mattawoman Creek watershed is in the county’s development areas, “In all candor you’d have to eliminate all development in the area to have no impact.”
Richard said that the county cannot balkanize Western Charles County and must create an east-west corridor to connect the county. The Bryans Road sub-area plan could be revisited, but as a concept is solid, Richard said, adding, “It works to the advantage of economic development in the county.”
“We are not simply reinventing the 2006 plan. We’re trying to take what is best in 2006 plan and implement it,” Richard said.
“The environmental community is not the end voice. They do not represent everyone. It is a specific point of view, and we’ve got to seek balance,” Richard said.
Richard said that he heard at the comprehensive plan meetings that property rights are a primary concern of the mainstream of county residents.
“I reject the argument that the people of this county want to create a county of haves and have nots. Not everyone wants townhouses, apartments or a single-family home on a third acre in St. Charles or Bensville,” Richard said, adding that in a referendum, the majority of people would support homes on three-acre lots than townhouses, apartments and single-family homes on small lots.
Commission member Steve Bunker had a different view of the criticism.
“I tend to agree with the criticism of the Smarter Growth Alliance. The commission should have given more emphasis on the report. Maybe the county should have invited DNR staff to present the report before we made our decisions,” Bunker said.
“We aren’t using the available information to make better decisions [for the 2012 comprehensive plan].”
Bunker said that the report states that the 2012 plan represents the last chance to protect the Creek from development.
“If we don’t turn it around now, we won’t be able to in the future,” Bunker said, adding that while some stormwater management improvements can help, it is difficult to get conditions back to where they used to be.
“It is a shame we haven’t focused on this information and gotten new information before making the decisions we made,” Bunker said.
Commission member Lou Grasso said that he has read the report thoroughly and understand the concerns, but “apart from a private enterprise or county government I don’t know how it could be adequately addressed while respecting people’s property rights.”
Grasso said that the United States of America was built on two premises tremendous respect for people’s property rights and the majority rules
Grasso said that the No. 1 premise driving the commission is protecting people’s property rights.
“We hold sacred people’s property rights and those cannot be protected unless the county, state or private enterprise provide the only solution to the taking of property rights — by a funding source for a TDR program,” Grasso said.
Grasso said that Commissioner Ken Robinson (D) and commissioners’ President Candice Quinn Kelly (D) have been pushing the protection of land with downzoning, “ignoring public input and people’s property rights.”
Grasso called Robinson’s and Kelly’s actions “un-American.”
“I don’t think there’s anything un-American about prudent land use policy, [and] progressive best management practices in accordance with modern science and economic development models,” Kelly responded in a telephone interview last week. “He is entitled to his opinion, but this kind of banter is disruptive. It is not helpful in moving the county forward.
“It’s really a step backward to say that the 2006 plan is fine and we only need to tweak it. The facts dispute that. We have overcrowded schools and tt is well-documented that sprawl is counter-intuitive to financial stability, ” she added.
Robinson’s first response when hearing about Grasso’s comments was, “Oh my God, I’m a communist.
“I will just say that the county has done its best to make the comprehensive plan process open to all citizens and opinions,” he continued. “I am confident that the final product that the commissioners approve will be a comprehensive plan that the citizens will be proud of. I believe in protecting property rights as well as ecological resources,” Robinson said.
“For the record I’m an American and damn proud of it,” Robinson said,