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Three Maryland government agencies have commented on the draft update of the Charles County Comprehensive Plan, the county’s chief planning document, with the Maryland Department of Planning calling the document “the most drastic policy reversal in a comprehensive plan that this agency has ever seen.”

Having received the comments, the Charles County Planning Commission will decide whether to amend its recommended draft before submitting it to the Charles County commissioners for potential changes and a vote.

In a Feb. 4 letter and report addressed to county government, MDP lists concerns, including that the plan “promote[s] large lot sprawl development,” endangering “the County’s rural character and environmentally sensitive lands,” documents state.

The Maryland Department of Natural Resources was equally harsh, calling the draft “inconsistent with 12 visions,” including infrastructure development, environmental protection and resource conservation, “adopted by the Maryland General Assembly in 2012,” and with other county and state planning goals.

DNR also calls the plan’s population growth “questionable” and land cover projections “not well supported.” Permitted building density in the “rural conservation district,” where land is supposed to be preserved, is too high, the comments continue, and the district is too small, endangering the Zekiah Swamp and heavily forested Nanjemoy. An appendix by DNR Fisheries Service staff calculated that the plan, if implemented, “seriously threatens fish habitat and fisheries in three sub-estuaries,” particularly the Mattawoman Creek, where growth “will make ecological reconstruction and revitalization prohibitively expensive and largely unsuccessful.”

The Maryland Department of the Environment piled on in its own Jan. 22 response, with comments asserting that “the Plan does not address water quality at all,” noting groundwater issues in some places and “disinfection byproducts” in parts of Waldorf served by the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, issues that could need to remedied soon to comply with the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.

MDE also questioned the county’s ability to dispose properly of sewage generated by new development and to protect “high quality waters,” including Mattawoman Creek and Zekiah Swamp Run, suggesting that the county use zoning and other ordinances to direct development away from sensitive watersheds.

The Maryland Department of Transportation was more encouraging, with generally positive comments concluding that the draft plan “is responsive to State goals and State transportation studies. It responds to the needs of a jurisdiction that has experienced rapid population growth, suburban development and a loss of undeveloped land.” The plan was compatible with the goal of expanding mass transit in Charles County as well, MDOT opined Jan. 15.

MDP weighed in on transportation issues, as well, and was relatively sanguine, praising the county’s interest in developing mass transit and concluding that the plan “includes transportation and land use policies and strategies that support smart growth in designated growth areas.” But, the comments continued, accommodating “low-density sprawl” development promoted by the plan would require the building of expensive county and state roads, worsen commutes and increase emissions of climate-altering greenhouse gases.

Finally, Prince George’s County had its own concerns about the plan, noting that part of the development district, which encompasses Waldorf and other northern Charles County land, borders land that Prince George’s had marked for conservation. Prince George’s County Planning Director Fern Piret, writing for the regional Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, added that greater water demand from Charles County could affect residents of southeastern Prince George’s County and WSSC customers, while “transportation volume, primarily along the US 301 Corridor,” is an ongoing issue that our jurisdictions need to closely coordinate.

Reactions vary

The comments elicited various responses from local officials, one incredulous, two unsurprised.

Planning commission member Joe Richard, who voted for the draft, said he was bewildered by the idea that the new plan could be a “drastic policy reversal,” particularly because it was substantially identical to the existing plan, enacted in 2006.

“That’s more of a political statement. I’m not getting into a row with the Maryland Department of Planning, but their statements recently, their analysis and assessment is quite frankly really over the top. I think they’ve abrogated, really, any objective analysis or assessment based on their agenda. Clearly, reading their analysis, it’s reading like [a report by] 1000 Friends of Maryland,” an environmental group.

The draft protects the environment, Richard said, and there already are “myriad environmental regulations imposed both on the legislative and the regulatory side that put safeguards in place,” he said.

Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of 1000 Friends of Maryland, laughed when asked if her group had influenced the agencies’ comments, saying the group hadn’t seen the state responses until after they were mailed.

“Of course that’s absurd. While I relish the compliment that we’re so strong that we are writing these comments, it’s definitely not true. The first time I saw the comments was after they were filed and … they brought up far more detail than we had discussed,” Schmidt-Perkins said.

She shared fears about environmental degradation, however, saying that stormwater runoff, septic system discharge and other pollution from low-density development would endanger rivers, while the development itself would consume forests and farms.

The consequences would be bad economically as well as ecologically, she added, endangering bass fishing and agriculture.

Agriculture is “a really important part of the economy for Charles County, and I believe that, finally, if this low-density sprawl and development happens, it will simply be ugly, and one of Charles County’s attractions is how beautiful it is … and if all that is low-density housing, it’s not going to be attractive and it’s not going to be a place people want to go to,” she said.

Planning commission Chairman Courtney Edmonds, an opponent of the draft, did not return calls seeking comment.

Two Charles County commissioners, board President Candice Quinn Kelly (D) and Commissioner Ken Robinson (D), said the state’s reaction was basically what they expected. County Commissioners Reuben B. Collins II (D), Debra M. Davis (D) and Bobby Rucci (D) did not return calls seeking comment.

“They said they’ve never seen anything like it in history, that it’s turning back the hands of time, basically. It’s very discouraging,” Robinson said. “I also want to point out that the commissioners have not addressed the comprehensive plan yet. I’m still confident that when we deal with it, we will be taking a more progressive approach.”

Robinson said he was hopeful that a majority of the commissioners would accept a version that pleased the state, as well.

“I’ve expressed confidence repeatedly throughout the process that when it gets to our eyes, we’ll take a long, hard look at it so we can pretty much stick to what the intent of the law. … I think my colleagues will have a different approach than the planning commission. Let’s put it this way: I hope my colleagues will have a different approach.”

The county has to conform to state law, Kelly said.

“I think it’s important to acknowledge that absolutely; there are those who are saying land use planning is 100 percent within the realm of the local jurisdiction. Nevertheless, no jurisdiction can or should plan in a vacuum. We have to understand that what we do impacts the entire state,” she said.

But it’s all local for Dave Lines, a member of the board of directors of the Charles County Farm Bureau who has monitored the comprehensive plan process for the organization. Farmers are too busy with work to participate in most public hearings, he said, so their views aren’t adequately represented. But farmers need to be able to borrow against their land to keep farming, which means keeping land values high. That, in turn, requires keeping the option to develop their land instead, said Lines, a La Plata farmer.

Lines, a supporter of the draft plan, agreed with Richard that the draft couldn’t be a radical document because it is too similar to the existing plan.

“2006 is what currently exists. If they keep [the] 2006 [plan], how is it a reversal? How is it a change? [State agencies are] missing the picture,” he said.

Lines didn’t believe in the agencies’ dire predictions if more rural land is developed, noting that there were trailers at La Plata High School when he attended almost 50 years ago, long before the building boom. Traffic in Charles County is much better than in Prince George’s, he added.

“We’re in a situation where we’re close to Washington, D.C. People want a place to live. That’s the fact of life,” Lines said.

Federal backlash

The draft comprehensive plan has garnered federal attention, too.

The Fish and Wildlife Service, part of the U.S. Department of the Interior, wrote to Charles County government Jan. 14, asking that the county change land use plans to protect sensitive waterways. The letter stated that FWS has been following both the comprehensive plan and the county “tier map,” a land use map drafted to comply with the so-called “septic bill,” formally the Sustainable Growth and Agricultural Preservation Act of 2012.

FWS urged Charles County to scrap the draft plan in favor of another, drawn up by an outside consultant after public hearings, that the Charles County Planning Commission rejected last year. It also urged the county to reject its draft tier map and replace it with a proposal, drawn up by county staffers, that would preserve more rural farm and forest land.

“Charles County supports some of the most important habitat for fish and wildlife in the Chesapeake Bay region. The Service’s Chesapeake Bay Field Office has identified several focus watersheds for conservation in Southern Maryland based on their importance to migratory birds, migratory fish, and federally-listed threatened and endangered species. These include Mattawoman Creek, Nanjemoy Creek, and Zekiah Swamp in Charles County. Mattawoman Creek is the Chesapeake Bay’s most productive nursery for migratory fish like American Shad,” FWS wrote.

“We encourage you to see that these watersheds are considered for special protection,” the letter continued. “Neither the Draft Comprehensive Plan nor the Planning Commission’s Tier Map adequately protect these important stream valleys and ultimately will result in increased sediment and nutrient pollution in the Potomac River and the Chesapeake Bay. Planning decisions in Charles County have ramifications well beyond its borders. Destruction of forests and farms in Charles County not only degrades local resources, it also reduces the quality of fish and wildlife resources throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed.”