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Environmentalists blasted the Charles County Planning Commission and the pro-growth Balanced Growth Initiative last week at a public hearing about land preservation.

They also called for greater protections for the Mattawoman Creek watershed, the health of which a Maryland Department of the Environment official told the Charles County commissioners last month could eventually be destroyed by current zoning rules.

The 2012 update of the Land Preservation, Parks and Recreation Plan, which is required by state government, should do more to protect the Mattawoman Creek watershed, said Tara Carlson of Waldorf, but more needs to be done.

“It’s coming down to the bottom line: Is the health of the Mattawoman, and by extension the health of the Chesapeake Bay, a priority for Charles County? Then more proactive actions must be taken. If there are more pressing county priorities that supersede the goal, that should be stated out loud. The Mattawoman is a draw. The Indian Head Rail Trail won’t be so popular if the Mattawoman is dead,” Carlson said.

Ken Hastings of Mechanicsville asked the commissioners to ensure the county gets a substantially new comprehensive plan, the county’s chief zoning document, this year, and warned that kowtowing to the planning commission could cost county commissioners their seats.

“The planning commission doesn’t stand for re-election and I urge you not to let their biases become your burdens,” he said. “Do you want to hold up the 2006 comp plan with the 2006 changed to 2012?” he asked.

Bruce Kirk of La Plata complained of a “relationship between the planning commission and the board of commissioners. It appears particularly with the present issue. My feeling is the group that calls itself Balanced Growth Initiative has been quite misleading in the sense that the purpose of the comprehensive plan has little to do with property values and mostly has to do with natural resources and the best land use decisions to benefit the public in general, not just landowners. My own property will drop in value nearly 30 percent with the last assessment. It had nothing to do with the comp plan. This business about land value has a lot of other factors to it.”

“I don’t know specifically what they’re talking about,” said unofficial BGI spokesman Charles McPherson on Wednesday. He did not see the hearing. “There’s been a lot of claims from these folks in the past.”

BGI members don’t have any particular influence with the planning commission, McPherson continued.

“I think they’re making their own opinion. I think we’ve probably differed at times with them at times. I think what we’re saying is compelling, personally: If you want it, pay for it. And you can quote that. The fundamental difference is [environmentalists] want to take [land value] from these people and not compensate them anything. We’re saying you can’t do that,” he said.

The commissioners did not respond to the comments, but left the record open until close of business Aug. 14. The commissioners will decide on the plan Aug. 21.

Concerned residents should lobby the planning commission directly and attend meetings, said planning commission Chairman Courtney Edmonds, who had not seen the public hearing.

“I can understand the concerns that some residents have about recent planning commission decisions because they seem to be either inconsistent with the guidance presented by the planning department or information gathered from public input. I think those facts may be or understandably could be what’s driving those concerns, at least in my view. That’s a diplomatic way of putting it,” Edmonds said.

The worries of environmentalists don’t reflect the views of most residents, said planning commission member Lou Grasso, who also did not see the meeting.

“I would like to say to you that most of these people are environmentalists. They don’t have the exclusive on being environmentally sensitive,” Grasso said. “This is all about the value in one’s perception of people’s property rights versus concern for the environment. The 17 people who are just making all this noise have every right to do so. I think they need to understand they’re not only ones who care about the environment. We’re just trying to balance people’s property rights against the value of environmental preservation.”

Plan overdueThe draft of the 2012 land preservation plan changes focus in ways consistent with shifts in county development, said Clive Graham, a planner with the Annapolis office of Environmental Resources Management, which was hired by the county to help with the revision.

“The focus of the plan has changed over the years. The last plan [2006] had a heavy emphasis on agricultural land preservation and natural resource preservation. This plan has more of a recreation and parks orientation consistent with the state’s guidelines for this round of plans,” Graham said. It should set land preservation policies that will be relevant for the next five to 15 years.

The draft plan was due to state government July 1, but Charles County is not the only one running late, Graham said. But the county should finish within the next two months, he added.

The planning commission recommended a draft that removed references to the priority preservation areas, a plan to protect land in three broad rural swaths of the county that was bitterly opposed by developers and farmers, according to a staff presentation to the county commissioners. The PPA plan was rejected by the planning commission and the county commissioners earlier this year.

Since 2006, the county has preserved 7,482 park and forest land, an increase of 36 percent, the presentation states, with the largest projects being the privately owned Nanjemoy Creek Preserve and the state-owned Cedar Point Wildlife Management Area.