- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
Charles County’s proposed land use map, mandated by the so-called “septic bill,” probably violates state law, the Maryland Department of Planning concluded in a report released Friday.
On Monday, MDP elaborated in a letter to county government, warning that the map does not protect environmentally sensitive land and permits “sprawl” development that could make it difficult to develop an effective mass transit system for the county’s urban areas.
The map, drafted as required by the Sustainable Growth and Agricultural Preservation Act of 2012, divides all land in the county into four tiers based on septic system and sewer use. The law also bans the building of large subdivisions in areas designated for conservation.
The county was supposed to submit its map to the state by the end of last year, but the draft is still before the Charles County commissioners. However, Charles County is not alone, according to the MDP report, which states that 12 counties had not adopted maps by Friday. Among that 12, Charles, Howard and Washington counties “have proposed tier maps for public discussion that largely do not conform to the law,” the report states, adding that if the “draft tier maps are adopted without change, significant environmental and agricultural impacts from septic development will occur.”
MDP’s concerns about Charles County’s proposal focus on the inclusion of land in Tier III, where major subdivisions can be built on septic systems, which MDP asserts should be in Tier IV, or conservation areas, where new major subdivisions are banned altogether.
The proposed map designates 65,000 fewer acres, generally fields and forest, for conservation than did a proposal by county staff. The change preserves landowners’ ability to build major subdivisions on the land.
“MDP attended numerous public meetings leading up to the development of three land use scenarios created by County staff. It was promising that the County was taking steps to implement many of the policies included in the County’s previous plans. We were surprised to find that this draft reverses many policies that support land conservation as well as smart growth principles,” states the letter, which was addressed to Peter Aluotto, Charles County director of the Department of Planning and Growth Management.
Some county officials said they agreed with MDP’s assessment, while others insisted that the map is legal as written.
The map adoption process has been “disturbing to me, and embarrassing,” said county Commissioners’ President Candice Quinn Kelly (D), especially because the Charles County Planning Commission adopted a map proposed by the Balanced Growth Initiative, which calls itself a property rights group, instead of the map proposed by county staff. She said she would not vote to approve the BGI draft as written.
Commissioner Ken Robinson (D) agreed, saying no special-interest group should have that much influence, regardless of its orientation.
“I would certainly not wish to associate myself, as a commissioner, with the map that the planning commission sent to us. First of all, it was presented and adopted by a special-interest group, and I think that’s inappropriate. ... I would feel just as uncomfortable with a map presented by an outside special-interest group if they were an environmental group. It’s not just that the Balanced Growth Initiative is a developer group,” Robinson said.
But Commissioner Reuben B. Collins II (D) said the situation was not so clear and asserted that a private attorney hired by the commissioners to give advice about the map declared it “well within the confines of the law.” Kelly and Robinson said they would not comment about a private discussion, though Kelly said Collins’ account was incorrect.
The septic bill is difficult to interpret, and MDP is interfering in a local land use decision, Collins continued.
“I question the objectivity of the state in that it kind of weighed in on this process prematurely. In SB 236 [the septic bill], it certainly allows for the state to comment, but that’s after the jurisdiction has absolutely approved a tier map. ... There is some virtue, I believe, in what the state is attempting to accomplish,” Collins said, but MDP shouldn’t yet be “weighing in on a local matter.”
Commissioners Debra M. Davis (D) and Bobby Rucci (D) did not return calls seeking comment.
Members of the Charles County Planning Commission, a majority of which opted to endorse the BGI map, also were split on its legality.
Planning commission Chairman Courtney Edmonds, who unsuccessfully opposed the draft plan, said at least two of his colleagues voted for it out of pique.
“The motion to pass the proposed tier map wasn’t based on the conclusion that the proposed map met the requirements of state law. Rather, Mr. [Joseph] Richard and Mr. [Lou] Grasso made the motion merely because they objected to the fact that the [county] planning and growth management department didn’t come back with what they wanted. And [the two men] expressed disagreement with SB 236 in the first place. So, it’s not surprising to me that MDP found it to be noncompliant,” Edmonds said.
Richard agreed that the planning commission majority had been displeased with county staff for not presenting a map that followed its dictates. But the planning commission adopted the BGI map because it came closest to what the commission desired all along, he continued, while county staff’s map was essentially identical to what MDP wanted.
“The map that the planning commission submitted to the county commissioners, at least from our perspective, meets the intent of SB 236,” Richard said.
MDP’s perspective, as expressed in the report, is basically identical to that of environmentalists, Richard said, something he attributed to the clout of groups like the Sierra Club and 1000 Friends of Maryland in Annapolis. Both groups have actively opposed Charles County’s draft map.
The law gives the state very little power to enforce its desires on counties anyway, Richard said, so Charles County has little to worry about. He dismissed fears that agencies could retaliate by cutting off funding for infrastructure because those processes are separate, he said.
“The idea MDP can wave a wand and no longer fund schools and roads [is wrong]. You can’t do that. There’s [funding] formulas. It’s just going to be impossible. I think that’s a lot of wishful thinking, trying to intimidate the less informed. ... I don’t respond well to threats, and I don’t think the county commissioners respond well to threats as well,” Richard said.
Grasso declined to comment Monday.