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Tractors paraded around the parking lot of the Charles County government building Tuesday night, signaling the support of the farmers who owned them for a land use plan they think will preserve the value of their land.

But inside the La Plata hearing room, the plan’s opponents outnumbered its supporters more than 2-to-1, with those speakers citing the cost of new infrastructure and damage to the environment as they urged the county commissioners to preserve land and slow development.

At the end of the hearing, the commissioners deferred for 10 days any action on the draft “tier map,” keeping the record open for people to submit comments in writing.

The map, drafted as required by the Sustainable Growth and Agricultural Preservation Act of 2012 —the “septic bill” — divides all land in the county into four tiers based on septic system and sewer use. It also bans the building of large subdivisions in areas designated for conservation.

The draft map has been controversial because the Charles County Planning Commission rejected a proposal made by county planning staff, adopting instead one drafted by the Balanced Growth Initiative, which calls itself a “property rights” group and includes developers, real estate agents and farmers. The BGI map designates 65,000 fewer acres, generally fields and forest, for conservation than the staff proposal. The change preserves landowners’ ability to build subdivisions on the land.

The county commissioners can agree with the planning commission or change the map, which is already late, having been due to Maryland agencies by the end of 2012.

Preventing the development of farmland could threaten the family farm, said Karen Anderson, owner of a Bel Alton horse farm and one of almost 90 speakers at the hearing.

“I purchased my farm just a little bit more than a decade ago with the intent that I would be able to leave a legacy to my kids. It was really important to me, as a single mom, to be able to purchase that farm and leave something to my children where they could build their homes, and hopefully their children would want to stay and build their homes and work the farm,” she said.

Her position was espoused by other farmers and is endorsed by the Charles County Farm Bureau, but not every farmer agreed.

“I’m here to urge you to vote no on the developers’ tier map,” said Nancy Smart, a Pomonkey farmer. “This map will hurt us all where it really hurts: in our pocketbooks,” because building more houses in outlying areas would require county government to provide expensive infrastructure. “All to make some developer rich. This, in my view, is neither fair nor right.”

Organizing by several environmental groups boosted the ranks of the plan’s opponents. Most of these were small, all-volunteer organizations like the Southern Maryland Audubon Society and the Port Tobacco River Conservancy. But bigger groups, including the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, also sent staffers to speak against the map; people from the Maryland chapter of the Sierra Club provided talking points and homemade baked goods to fortify people for a long night.

The county has embarrassed itself by caving to developers, suggested CBF staffer Terry Cummings.

“I’m rather amazed, appalled and flabbergasted at how this process has evolved,” Cummings said. “You folks started out a very democratic, open process … and it has devolved to what we have today before us, which is a map that has been developed by a special-interest group. By lawyers, by Realtors and developers. They are basically prescribing, through this map, the land use policy Charles County should follow, and I think that’s appalling and outrageous.”

These comments raised the hackles of Murray D. Levy, a former county commissioner and state delegate who is now a paid lobbyist for BGI. After the hearing, Levy introduced himself to Cummings, shook his hand, then told the visibly startled man to “go to hell” for saying the county was “corrupt.” Cummings insisted that he had not alleged corruption.

“You can kiss my ass,” Levy replied.

Levy wasn’t the only one to object to the environmentalists. During his three minutes before the commissioners, Brian Klaas of Nanjemoy said that their position “scares the heck out of me” because it would rob him of control over the land he’d worked for.

“Our desire for our land is to live on it, to enjoy it, preserve it and pass it to our heirs. We paid for it; we’re still paying for it,” Klaas said.

When the speakers had finished, Commissioner Ken Robinson moved that the board work to draft a new map that could be acceptable to both sides, because “we don’t want to punt” the matter back to the planning commission.

Commissioners’ President Candice Quinn Kelly (D) joined him, but the other three commissioners voted simply to keep the record open instead.

Despite rejecting Robinsion’s motion, Commissioner Reuben B. Collins II (D) said in a Wednesday interview that he hopes for a compromise.

“From my perspective I see problems with both maps. All along, I thought the idea was to try to find somewhat more of a middle ground. I think that’s something were going to eventually get toward,” Collins said.

Kelly was more definite, saying she could not accept the map endorsed by the planning commission and BGI, in large part because of sharp although informal criticism offered by the Maryland Department of Planning after the planning commission approved it.

“There are a couple fundamental questions: the intent of the law, compliance with the law, and will the map be able to stand up against criticism from state agencies and legal challenges? There was nothing I heard from BGI that convinces me that that’s the case,” Kelly said.

At other hearings, BGI supporters have said state agencies can do little about the county’s tier map even if they don’t like it. This might be true, Robinson acknowledged, but the state has many other ways of making its displeasure felt, especially as it doles out funds for infrastructure.

“I’ll just leave you with a ‘dot dot dot’” on the potential consequences of offending the Maryland Department of Planning and other agencies, he said.

Commissioners Debra M. Davis (D) and Bobby Rucci (D) did not return calls seeking comment Wednesday.



emitrano@somdnews.com