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The Charles County Planning Commission voted unanimously Monday night to designate the Old Waldorf School and Bel Alton High School as historical landmarks for the county.

Beth Groth, Charles County Planning and Growth Management staffer, and Frank Robinson, Historic Growth Preservation Commission chairman, presented to the planning commission the case for designating the two sites as landmarks worthy of preservation.

Groth said the two schools, which date back to the 1930s, are both historically and architecturally significant. Both are county-owned and share “a lot of similar characteristics,” Groth said. The two also are sites for Maryland Historical Trust easements.

With the sites’ newfound designation, Groth said the two buildings are potentially eligible for tax credits from the county and are protected from demolition and further development.

New planning commission member Gilbert “Buddy” Bowling questioned whether the “general public would have the opportunity to come in and learn about how some of these schools got started and ... some of the history and heritage and culture so that people who are from outside of Charles County” could understand their impact. Groth confirmed that the facilities are currently open to the public and could potentially open in this manner to the public, although “not necessarily all the time. ... It’s up to the property owner to make that decision.”

Following approval by the planning commission, the county commissioners will have the final word on whether the sites will be designated as local historical landmarks.

Because she is president of the Bel Alton High School Alumni Association, planning commission member Joan Jones recused herself from the vote.

PGM Director Peter Aluotto also addressed the planning commission’s responsibility both publicly and professionally in light of the recent Piney Reach Business Park archaeological controversy. Planning commission members and PGM employees got into a spat about when Planning Director Steven Ball knew that there were historical sites on the property.

“There are a couple of things, I think, regarding our conduct that have gotten things off-track, and I wanted to address those,” Aluotto said. He noted that PGM staffers are all professionals who strive to provide accurate and factual information, but mistakes are to be expected. Aluotto took exception to the notion that mistakes, however, should make it so that the staffers were treated in a manner that is less than respectful.

“The board should strive to keep an open mind. ... There are no absolutes in this business, no wrongs or rights, just shades of gray and degrees of better or worse choices and decisions,” Aluotto said. “Whether or not we personally agree with a speaker or not, they too are entitled to courtesy and respect, which is basically another way of saying that we can disagree without being disagreeable.”

Even in the face of issues that “stir people’s passions,” Aluotto urged the board to seek compromises rather than holding to partisan positions, and to keep open minds to maintain a balance on the board.

Aluotto also noted that every issue the board sees is conditional on the times, and “no one issue is a matter of life and death.” He urged PGM staff to be as accurate and reliable as possible in dealing with the planning commission.

“Anything we can do to help improve the decision-making process, we’re all for it,” Aluotto said.

Commission member Robert Mitchell said he hoped to keep “lines of communication open between the commission and the staff” to ensure things run smoothly.

“With those things, I think we can all look forward to a pretty good change,” Mitchell said. “We’re a group of people, we all have our own opinions, but that’s what the world is about.”

Aluotto said that PGM is also eyeing changes to its archaeological preservation standards. Sites will potentially be evaluated according to the likelihood that they contain archaeologically significant sites, and Aluotto said they also plan to eliminate requirements for final plats.

“At the conclusion of it all, I think we’ll have something we can all live with,” Aluotto said. Throughout the week, he added, PGM staffers will continue to review the current procedures while comparing the county’s process to those of other counties. Without an archaeologist on staff, Aluotto said the services will likely be contracted out.

Newly appointed Chairman Steve Bunker was not present at the meeting.

The commission will meet next on May 20.

The commission also:

•Unanimously approved a site plan for lot C-1 of the Piney Reach Business Park located adjacent to the county landfill in Waldorf.

•Designated the May 20 meeting, along with June 12 and 17, as work sessions to review commentary on the 2013 comprehensive plan.

lrenner@somdnews.com