Ten state agency secretaries added their names to the list opposed to the Charles County draft comprehensive plan update in a Friday letter to the county commissioners, citing “serious concerns” with the draft plan “contrary to longstanding sound planning.”
Signed by the Maryland Smart Growth Subcabinet, the letter is the latest and most detailed in a series of rebukes to come from state department heads, who have said the draft plan shifts county land use policy away from land preservation toward sprawl development.
The letter praises county planning staff for its initial proposed plan — which assigned more land for preservation — and states that the draft plan “changes the land use designation of large areas of the county from rural and agricultural conservation to rural residential development areas,” marking “a 180-degree turn in decades long county land use policy.”
The draft plan shifts roughly 150,000 acres previously designated for agricultural and rural conservation into a rural residential zone, and cuts the county’s allotment of rural land slotted for preservation from 42,000 acres to 24,000 acres, the letter states.
Collectively, the changes result in a decrease in the amount of county land planned for resource conservation from 82 percent to 8 percent, by far the lowest level in the state, the letter notes.
The next closest jurisdiction is Montgomery County, which has 33 percent of its land marked for resource conservation, but with a population six times that of Charles.
The majority of counties have more than 80 percent of their land slated for resource conservation — elsewhere in Southern Maryland, Calvert and St. Mary’s counties have conservation designation on 82 and 80 percent of their land, respectively.
The Charles County Planning Commission approved the draft plan 5-2 last month. Two days later, Maryland Department of Planning Secretary Rich Hall called the vote “pitiful” on his personal Facebook page.
Maryland Department of Transportation Secretary James T. Smith followed with an Aug. 23 letter to commissioners’ President Candice Quinn Kelly (D), stating among other things that the plan was inconsistent with the county’s long-term goal of bringing light rail mass transit to Waldorf and White Plains.
Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development Secretary Raymond A. Skinner expressed similar concerns in a Sept. 11 letter to the commissioners, prompting Kelly and Commissioner Ken Robinson (D) to wonder which state agency would be the next to chime in.
“They can’t all be wrong, and I’m very concerned with how many more agencies are out there that are going to send us a letter putting us on notice that the comprehensive plan has major issues,” Kelly said last week.
“I don’t know how many state agencies there are, but I’m sure this is not the last,” Robinson said.
Still, neither commissioner foresaw a letter signed by 13 agency heads — including Hall, Smith and Skinner — and Gerrit Knapp, director of the National Center for Smart Growth, a land-use planning foundation at University of Maryland. The only member of the subcabinet whose signature is missing is Carol Anne Gilbert, DHCD’s assistant secretary for neighborhood revitalization.
“This pretty much does it all. This takes them all in,” Robinson said. “When you get 14 signatories, obviously this is coming from up higher than just these cabinet officials. This is coming indirectly from Gov. Martin O’Malley.”
Robinson pointed out that the letter indicates the draft plan does not comply with state law, an issue he plans to raise with County Attorney Barbara Holtz.
In addition to calling the draft update “clearly contrary” to 2012 state legislation limiting growth of septic systems, the subcabinet notes that the plan acknowledges but ultimately contradicts the state’s 12 planning “visions,” which must be incorporated into the comprehensive plan.
“The designation of large areas of the county’s rural and agricultural areas for residential development is not sustainable over the long term,” the letter states. “It will require enormous expenditures of state and local funds to pay for new schools, new roads and many other new public facilities.”
The subcabinet also points out that the more than $11 million invested by the state since 2008 for local land preservation easements came when the county planned for resource conservation on 82 percent of its land.
“The county may not have been as competitive for those investments had it presented a vision for only eight percent land resource conservation,” the letter states.
In grant applications for La Plata, Waldorf and Hughesville, the county “maintained that state revitalization investments would be reinforced by the county’s smart growth policies,” the subcabinet wrote. “This will no longer be true if the draft plan is approved.”
“A lack of continued commitment by county leaders in approving effective local land use tools, which will occur if the County Commissioners approve the recommended changes in land use designation in the comprehensive plan, calls into question the level of future effort and commitment that should be provided by the state,” the letter concludes. “Our agencies look forward to supporting local planning efforts in Charles County, however, we cannot support land use policies that run counter to state law and longstanding, sound planning principles and practices.”
Robinson said he hopes the letter serves as a “wake-up call” to those who have supported the draft plan.
“This rogue county designation appears to be unprecedented, and its certainly an embarrassment,” he said. “It’s my long-held feeling that we need to reject the [Balanced Growth Initiative] plan and start all over again because the state of Maryland certainly means business.”
Commissioners’ Vice President Reuben B. Collins II (D) said Monday that he had yet to see the letter, but reiterated his position that such feedback from the state on local land use decisions is “unprecedented.”
“There’s never been this type of approach by the state on any level,” he said. “This goes beyond the basic premises of comity and everything expected by local jurisdictions.”
Collins plans to request a direct response from the county’s hired land use attorney “because it’s starting to fall into a discussion into the legality of what the county is doing, and I’m firmly in the position that the county has done nothing that’s outside the scope of the law.”
Collins maintained that the draft plan is consistent with 20 years of county zoning policy and described the state’s land use policy as being directed by urban jurisdictions seeking to unfairly limit development in rural counties.
“The fact of the matter is, the larger jurisdictions, the ones that have the actual largest delegations in the state, in terms of their growth and development, they’re grown out anyway,” Collins said. “If National Harbor were undeveloped at this stage, there would not be a National Harbor based on decisions and positions made by this administration. When you look at the overall growth in the larger jurisdictions, you don’t have the limitations that are being placed on our county. We’re trying to grow a commercial base. We’re trying to create equal opportunities for our citizens.”
Kelly said the letter echoes concerns she often hears from county residents.
“In my view, these state partners are speaking for our citizens,” she said. “Their comments about this plan, those kind of actions are what our citizens want. They’re tired of the traffic congestion, seeing their kids go to school in trailers, taxes going up because we can’t support a growing population.”
Commissioners Debra M. Davis (D) and Bobby Rucci (D) did not respond to requests for comment.
The commissioners voted Tuesday afternoon to hold a public hearing on the comprehensive plan at 7 p.m. Oct. 29.