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In the eyes of a Maryland smart growth group, Charles County has gone “rogue,” endangering rural land by flouting a state law limiting new development on septic systems. In so doing, Charles joins Wicomico and Queen Anne’s counties in heading toward “pavement,” not “preservation,” faster than any other Maryland counties, the group maintains.

1000 Friends of Maryland, based in Baltimore, is committed to eliminating “poorly managed growth and development decaying urban and village centers, congested roads, degraded natural resources, declining agricultural economy, and inadequate transportation choices,” according to its website.

The group was especially displeased by developers’ influence over the county’s efforts to comply with the Sustainable Growth and Agricultural Preservation Act the so-called septic bill which 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 tier map endangers the Mattawoman Creek, the group said, joining the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, which warned in July that the creek would be destroyed by the loss of forests in its watershed.

In November, the Charles County Planning Commission adopted a draft tier map drafted by the Balanced Growth Initiative, a local “property rights” group, over the objections of county planning staff.

“The county Planning Commission rejected the staff’s recommended septic tier map that would provide greater protection to these lands and instead endorsed a tier map drafted by a developer group that supports sprawl development,” according to the group’s report. “The developer’s sprawl tier map limits Tier IV to publicly owned lands and land under [conservation] easement.”

Planning commission member Lou Grasso, who voted for the BGI map, said he has tired of listening to environmentalists.

“I’ve heard about them [1000 Friends], and like so many other environmental groups they refuse to be balanced in their approach to environmental issues or even be willing to compromise in a practical way to protect the values of property. I don’t pay much attention to them anymore because they’re all the same,” said Grasso, who had heard about but not read the report.

He said the planning commission would have approved a county staff map, but the Department of Planning and Growth Management refused to follow directions, instead suggesting a map that placed more land into tiers 3 and 4, where development would be most restricted, than the planning commission wanted to see. BGI was more responsive to suggestions, Grasso said.

But planning commission Chairman Courtney Edmonds, who voted against BGI’s proposal, said the majority refused to listen to staff experts.

“From what I understood from the meeting in which that tier map was adopted, the basis for adopting that map wasn’t that the map complied with the requirements of [the septic bill]. I came away from that meeting with the impression that the map was adopted because Mr. Grasso didn’t get the information that he wanted from the planning department,” Edmonds said.

The proposal isn’t final; it also must be approved by the Charles County commissioners, who plan to review it in early January. But farmland could vanish rapidly if the map were adopted as written, said Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of 1000 Friends. Zoning rules do not violate property rights because landowners don’t have the right to use their land in ways that harm others, she said, like degrading soil and water quality through “sprawl” development.

“I live in a community, and yes, I could subdivide my tiny city lot to put a pig farm on one corner, a high-rise on another, and install a large, noisy bar in another — they’d have to be very small. But I can’t, because it would be harmful to my neighbors, bad for the community and reduce my neighbors’ property values. We live in a community. The role of county government is to look at these different desires and say, ‘What is the best for the community?’” she said.

The adoption of a map drafted by developers “certainly can be perceived as very damaging to some of our citizens,” said county commissioners’ President Candice Quinn Kelly (D), but she stressed that Maryland Department of Planning officials are commenting on the draft and the final authority rests with the commissioners.

Charles County’s “hybrid” nature as partly urban and partly rural make it a battleground for dueling land use philosophies, said Charles County Commissioner Reuben B. Collins II (D).

“I think the 1000 Friends are doing what they’re supposed to do. I would be shocked if they took a position other than absolutely advocating for virtually no growth and development,” he said.

emitrano@somdnews.com