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Preservation community rips commission

By ERICA MITRANO

Staff writer

Land preservationists blasted the Charles County Planning Commission on Wednesday for accepting, without revision, a “property rights” group’s land use proposal instead of one suggested by county government staff. But other speakers lauded the Balanced Growth Initiative’s map for saving land values by preserving the right to develop rural land.

Discussion of the countywide “septic bill” map dominated the monthly public forum before the Charles County commissioners in La Plata. The 2012 state law, formally the Sustainable Growth and Agricultural Preservation Act, directs county governments to divide their territories into four “tiers” for septic system and sewer use and to submit the plan to state government agencies by the end of the year.

The tiers comprise areas with sewer systems, areas where sewer systems are planned, areas where major subdivisions are permitted on septic systems and “preservation and conservation” areas where new major subdivisions will not be approved.

Wednesday’s controversy stemmed from the planning commission’s decision to allow major subdivisions to be built in swaths of the county’s rural areas that planning staffers recommended be included in the map’s conservation tier. The BGI proposal adopted by the planning commission removes about 65,000 acres of land from conservation, as suggested by county staff, and designates the areas for development with either sewer or septic systems.

The shifts endanger the health of the Mattawoman Creek, Mattawoman Watershed Society President Jim Long said. Runoff and pollution from developing farm and forest land would doom the struggling creek, where populations of smaller fish, like river herring, already are falling, he said.

“I hope you all know, the overall fish community in the Mattawoman is declining alarmingly. This includes especially the migratory fish. Fisheries scientists have sounded the alarm that the bass may follow. The Mattawoman is at a tipping point,” Long said.

Long’s comments were echoed by Dave Gardiner, director of the Port Tobacco River Conservancy, who said development threatens the survival of the Port Tobacco River, as well.

Chuck Jackson of Port Tobacco objected to the map on procedural, not environmental, grounds, saying the planning commission should have held a public hearing before approving BGI’s map.

“We understand this map was prepared by an outside party and adopted by the planning commission with little or no review by staff or the public,” or by the planning commission attorney, Jackson said. “Given these procedural flaws, we ask you to reject this map. In essence, we would like you to send this map back to the planning commission and ask them to do their homework before they send their work.”

Farmer Dave Lines of La Plata dismissed these concerns as those of “a small but vocal segment of our county” that was overstating the harm development does to nature, especially compared to major pollution events like sewage treatment plant overflows.

“From a farmer’s perspective, I can tell you any land placed in [conservation] tier 4 is too much because it devalues land without any compensation,” he said.

Farmers should at least be allowed to build as many homes as they need to continue working the land, and the fate of the land should ultimately be the owners’ to decide, said David Hancock Jr. of La Plata.

“I would like to, actually, from a farmer’s point of view, ask you to accept BGI’s proposal. The reason I say that [is] I’ve had people ask me, ‘Why would a farmer support that?’ We do support conservation, obviously; if a farmer is in the business of making a living off the land and all the land is developed, you’re not going to be doing a lot of business that way,” Hancock said.

Former state Del. Murray Levy, now a paid BGI lobbyist, defended the professionalism of the people who drafted the group’s proposal.

“What the opponents of that map are doing is not fair. If it’s the county government’s belief that that land should be preserved, pay for it,” he said.

Final approval for the tier maps will come from the county commissioners, and commissioners’ President Candice Quinn Kelly (D) stressed that the drafting process is not over.

Maryland Department of Planning staffers are commenting informally on the map, and the board could opt to send it to MDP for a formal review before adopting it, she said.

“That lets everyone know that there will be some other eyes on this. There are other aspects of this we’ll all have the opportunity to reconvene and reconsider,” Kelly said.

In interviews Thursday, two members of the planning commission majority that adopted the BGI map defended the decision as best for property rights and criticized county staffers for, they said, not following the planning commission’s instructions when drafting their proposal.

“Generally speaking, the staff failed to provide the planning commission with a map that reflected the intent of the planning commission. They failed miserably. ... I think the alternative [BGI] map that was recommended to the county commissioners, I think, better represents the interests of all the people in the county to include the farmers,” said planning commission Vice Chairman Joe Richard.

The map can be changed later, Richard and member Lou Grasso noted.

Grasso said people concerned about the land should protect it themselves.

“What you have is a lot of people that have a dream for what they want Charles County to be, and they want to finance that on the backs of the people that own the land. So again, I’ll go back to you, if they want to do that, they [should] pay for it themselves. Otherwise, let’s just go to everyone in the development district, in St. Charles, and bulldoze half of their house. We’re not going to pay them for it because we want more drainable area, more pervious area. See how they like it,” Grasso said.

Staff writer Paul S. Warner contributed to this report.

emitrano@somdnews.com