- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
Charles County citizens gathered Monday night at the government building in La Plata to express an array of concerns surrounding the 2012 Charles County Comprehensive Plan.
County planning commission members heard perspectives from proponents of the plan and those opposed, and ultimately voted at the hearing’s conclusion to keep the record open for 10 more days to allow for any further comments to be submitted, after which time the Planning and Growth Management staff will analyze the comments made and present their findings to the commission.
The first citizen to speak, Pomonkey resident Tanja Carter, said her brother had been involved in a head-on collision on Billingsley Road some years ago, an event that she said played a critical role in her decision to support the cross-county connector as outlined in the current draft of the plan.
“Billingsley Road is a road that I travel quite often, and I have often thought that the road was not very forgiving,” Carter said, listing safety and convenience as her primary concerns. “I think the cross-county connector would be a blessing from a safety perspective. I respect that we have to respect the nature and the things that are there, but if I have to weigh my brother in a head-on collision and a plant, I’m always going to go with the safety of human life.”
Federal and state agencies last year rejected applications for permission to build the connector.
Speaking for the Smarter Growth Alliance for Charles County, Nanjemoy resident Ted Baker expressed the group’s frustration with pro-development group Balanced Growth Initiative’s “hijacking” of the deliberation process regarding the plan.
“We watched with dismay as a sprawl development lobby of land speculators ... together with the support of four members of the seven-member planning commission hijacked what had been an open and transparent comprehensive plan process,” Baker said. “You four then did a very un-American thing. Bowing to BGI, you threw away the compromise scenario that was forged at great taxpayer expense, countless staff hours and over a year of public input. And for what? To promote an extremist plan that caters exclusively to land speculators.”
Baker then reiterated the many ways in which he and the SGACC felt the four — Vice Chairman Joseph Richard and members Louis Grasso, Joan Jones and Bobby Mitchell — failed the public.
“When you, on a four-to-three vote, rubber stamp this plan, know that you have voted to support only the moneyed fringe group BGI and that you have turned your back on the majority of citizens who deserve better,” Baker said.
Baker’s testimony was followed by that of former Charles County delegate and commissioner Murray Levy, who now works as a BGI representative.
“I want to thank the majority of the planning commissioners for voting to maintain and improve upon the 2006 plan, and reject the merged scenario,” Levy said. “Four words represent the importance of this decision: jobs, economy and property values.”
Levy said that BGI supports a proposed light-rail project but considers it a project “well off in the future” and not necessarily pertinent to the current plan.
“Our short-term focus ... must be on transportation modes that can be provided now, such as roads, buses, park and ride lots, bicycle lanes and sidewalks,” Levy said. “The cross-county connector is needed now, and the assertion by some that the cross-county can’t be permitted is untrue. It is not smart growth putting 75 percent of our growth in the development district and ignoring the need for the infrastructure, such as roads.”
Levy also contended that the recent upgrades to the Maryland Airport in Indian Head provided the “unique opportunity for private-sector jobs,” and would reduce reliance on federal jobs for county residents.
“Those who insist we give up our jobs and property values are out of step with the citizens of Charles County,” Levy said.
Indian Head resident Vince Hungerford urged the board to consider the “unintended consequences” that could come with the plan, specifically regarding future rounds of military base realignment from the federal level and its effect on the western side of the county.
“We don’t know when, but we do know that we will have it. What do we have in the middle to protect our military activities? Do we have a plan?” Hungerford said, moving on to address the airport’s recent upgrades. “This will be our future economic engine for the county. Shortly, there will be a need for a terminal, and I think we should fast forward to providing the sewage that we promised, and that should be completed ASAP.”
Hungerford also voiced his support for the cross-county connector, saying he could not see Billingsley Road becoming a primary east-west corridor for the county.
Bel Alton farmer David Lines, a longtime resident of the county and president of the Charles County Farm Bureau, described the plan’s current iteration as an “excellent document which I strongly support” in most aspects, adding that the plan supports the agricultural community and protects property rights. Lines, however, was concerned with its environmental side.
“There’s too much emphasis on the welfare of birds, fish and plants rather than the welfare of humans,” Lines said. “Planners and growth managers seem to be increasing their power through more rules and regulations that were not intended or foreseen by this document.”
Lines added that he was concerned the so-called septic bill, which requires counties to divide land into four “tiers” based on access to sewer systems and preservation status, would prove an “unnecessary burden” and raise taxes to an unacceptable level.
Lines’ wife, Ann, advocated for reform to make the county’s transfer of development rights programs viable, and for the establishment of a purchasable development rights program.
“The only question here is who will pay for this? ... Why shouldn’t everyone share the cost, instead of owing those who own the remaining undeveloped land?” Ann Lines said. “The TDR program worked very well as long as the market was up. However, tonight I’d like to recommend ... more than a consideration. Let’s make a PDR program ... tied to every citizen in the county. Everyone is going to benefit. Why shouldn’t everyone pay the burden? They could make the program similar to the flush tax situation, and yes, it could maybe even be tied into income taxes, so that even citizens of Charles County’s sacred cow St. Charles could pay their fair share.”
Jackie Alexander of the Southern Maryland Association of Realtors voiced the group’s support for the existing plan, adding that it provided for “the long-held policies of accessible, well-managed growth while protecting environmentally sensitive lands and the property rights of county residents.”
Alexander urged the commission to view the Maryland Airport as a source of potential economic boons, with the addition of the proper infrastructure to the area.
Alexander took issue with tenets of the economic development portion of the plan.
“While the plan recognizes that Charles County will share in an accelerated pattern of employment growth in Southern Maryland, it appears to concede the growth to other areas of our tri-county region,” Alexander said. “The county must not accept the imbalance between residential growth and the local employment base will remain. Remember to recommend that the planning commission re-evaluate this chapter. ... If we fail to do this, local properties will continue to bear the lion’s share of property taxes to fund the local government.”
Speaking against the plan, Meredith Sweet of the Sierra Club’s Southern Maryland chapter expressed similar dissatisfaction to Baker’s regarding the dissolution of the process of approving the plan, and the commission being “complicit” in allowing BGI to call the shots for the “outdated plan.”
“The word ‘democracy’ is not for the process of free and fair relations, but for the system for accomplishing what can only be achieved by diverse citizens from diverse backgrounds coming together in fairly constructed ways to debate the issues and so fulfill the common good,” Sweet said. “The purpose is ... to accomplish ends that cannot be achieved as individuals. But democracy cannot fulfill this role when companies use politics to advance or maintain their competitive standing, or when they appear to take on social responsibilities that they have no real capacity or authority to fill. The Balanced Growth Initiative ... hijacked the process.”
Speaking for the Chapman Forest Foundation, Alex Winter said he felt the plan’s current iteration did not have the greater good in mind.
“It is the ordinary people of Charles County who own the homes ... who aren’t getting the services that they should get,” Winter said.
Jim Long of the Mattawoman Watershed Society said he hoped to “persuade a change of heart” among the four members who he believed would vote for the plan and allow its passage.
“By catering to a few land speculators ... you have harmed the majority of the county,” Long said. “What is good for the watershed will be good for the people.”
The planning commission will hold its next meeting April 22.