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Environmentalists and development advocates alike agree that fixing the county’s transferable development rights program would not solve problems with preservation in Charles County.

With the current iteration of the 2012 comprehensive plan, which governs all land use in the county and is still under review, the members of the county’s planning commission could have chosen to rework the program. Ultimately, however, the program, which allows for county supervision of the transfer of development rights to developers from farmers — allowing the landowners to be compensated for preservation and greater density for the developers — was left the same as it was in previous years.

Charles County’s program dates back to 1992, and Charles Rice, Planning and Growth Management director for environmental programs, said that the overarching issue remains trying to increase the demand for TDRs, achieved in one way, through decreasing density.

“I don’t know that we specifically recommended the commission revamp it,” Rice said last week, noting that the county’s fiscal 2013 and 2014 budgets have included line items appropriating some funds to be used for the program. “We’re looking to develop it and roll it out this year, and do what Calvert County has done and purchase some TDRs and retire them. That would ensure some of a market.”

Historically, the county’s TDR program has fared the best when the housing market was at its strongest. In an April article, the Maryland Independent reported that in 2007, the average selling price for TDRs was $18,500 per TDR; throughout 2011 and 2012, it was $5,750.

PGM Director Peter Aluotto said last week that although the program has remained unchanged and the long-delayed plan’s approval date is fast approaching, the commission might still revisit its revision in the future.

“The jury is still out,” Aluotto said. “We have two new appointees, and we’re going through all the comments now. It’s too early to answer that. There’s nothing that says we can’t come back to it in a few years. No win or loss is permanent. It’s not final forever, and this doesn’t make it go away.”

Newly appointed commission Chairman Stephen Bunker represents a portion of a minority on the commission that historically has voted in favor of smarter growth. Bunker noted Tuesday that the comprehensive plan probably would not include specifics about TDR alteration, but that he had planned to suggest changes to the program before the plan’s final approval.

“In the past, I think, the program worked really well ... before the recession,” Bunker said, noting that the program’s success partially relies on an active real estate market aided by more development. “I’d ask the county to hire a consultant ... to make it more robust.”

Bunker said that although he felt downzoning receiving areas for the land would help foster the program’s growth, that option is unpopular on the commission.

“It’s not something the majority of the planning commission seems intent on doing. For that land to get developed, developers need to need [to purchase TDRs],” Bunker said. “They don’t need TDRs. The county could do more. It’s a property rights issue for them, which is why they didn’t want to do the tier maps or the Priority Preservation Area. I think the county could really benefit from a more robust program.”

Jim Long of the Mattawoman Watershed Society said that the current plan “takes away the motivation” for the planning commission to focus on preservation through its failure to rework the TDR program.

“Because of this comprehensive plan, it’s considerably worse than in the past,” Long said Wednesday. “It is in fact consistent with their decision to abandon the PPA. They’d have to have redone it along the lines of the earlier scenarios. They’ve removed any motivation for developers to participate. They can get the density wherever they want it. ... It’s a broken program. Charles County is the third most environmentally valuable county in the state. ... This plan doesn’t do anything to protect that.”

La Plata farmer David Lines, a member of the Balanced Growth Initiative, said he would like to see a TDR program that does not focus on downzoning, but still allows for land preservation and adequate compensation for landowners, a desire he said is universal among the county’s farmers.

“It’s the will of the people. We could improve the program if there was a market,” Lines said. “Right now, there’s no major incentive for developers to buy. You can build in the development district without them. A situation like with St. Charles exempts a good portion of the county ... and the reasons they cite for why they [should be exempt] are things that should be done anyway. They build roads like St. Charles Parkway, but where does that land come from? They build schools, but where do the kids to fill it come from? TDR has to benefit both the seller and the buyer. We don’t require it here. As I recall, Scenario I and the merged scenario attempted to downzone by just a fiat. They didn’t change anything that already existed.”

Lines is worried about what downzoning could do to land values.

“The biggest problem ... would be decreased equity. That’s the real problem when you downzone,” Lines said. The value of downzoned land could exceed the value of TDR land, effectively driving buyers and owners away from wanting to participate. “We could do it. ... I guess the bottom line is if the comprehensive plan would want to preserve land, that’s great, but it’s only fair to pay the landowner. He’s going to lose equity if it’s just downzoned.”

Lines said that the success would be contingent on a level playing field where the developers of planned unit developments shared the same burden as every other developer, a situation the county could not force to happen.

“There’d be a court battle, a big lawsuit ... and right now, they’ve got an ironclad argument,” Lines said. “They’d win the battle. But I think all farmers would love to have the land preserved if it was done in a fair market way.”

Gilbert “Buddy” Bowling, a newly appointed member of the planning commission as well as a local farmer, said he plans to continue to push the board on the issue of revisiting the process of TDR revision. Bowling stressed the importance of involving the county’s agricultural preservation board in the process.

“I think that as time goes on, anything like this needs to be evaluated. I was there when the TDR program got developed, and these things change over time,” Bowling said. “Like the comprehensive plan, it needs to be reassessed to see how effective it is. I’ve made these comments before that the agricultural board needs to look at this ... and they need to look at different ways to preserve. The more tools we have, the more options we have to preserve.”

Bowling noted that the economy is key in the TDR program but that discussion with others who have successful and workable programs is equally key.

“They need to come back to it because several comments have been made about the TDR program during the public hearings, and I think it needs to come up. The board has addressed some of the other issues, and this is important to the farming community,” Bowling said. “I’ve made these comments before, like I said, and I plan to keep doing so. It’s all you can do.”

lrenner@somdnews.com