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The Charles County commissioners approved Tuesday a response to a Sept. 20 letter signed by 13 state agency heads criticizing the county’s draft comprehensive plan.

Prepared by Annapolis land use attorney Warren Rich, the response letter states that the Maryland Smart Growth Subcabinet’s letter to the county “carried with it certain implicit threats” that the county could lose state funding were the draft plan approved.

Rich also wrote that the subcabinet does not have “the authority to approve or disapprove County comprehensive plans or even to advocate specific positions ... or for that matter implicitly threaten the potential loss of State funding programs related to local land use decisions.”

Though the draft plan merges large swaths of land designated as agricultural conservation in the 2006 comprehensive plan into a much larger rural residential district, it retains the land’s zoning density of one unit per three acres, the letter states.

“The point is that while the name changed, the residential development potential for these lands remains unchanged. The conclusion advanced in your letter that the change in land use designation from Agricultural and Rural Conservation to Rural Residential will result in an inundation of large lot, single family homes is unrealistic and is inconsistent with the growth patterns in Charles County following the adoption of the 2006 Comprehensive Plan,” Rich wrote. “Simply put, the change in the name of the land use districts certainly will not change the growth patterns and will not trigger rampant large lot development.”

The subcabinet letter states that the draft plan would reduce the amount of county land slated for resource conservation from 82 percent to 8 percent, by far the lowest level in the state, but Rich countered that the analysis omitted the county’s “protected lands” zone, resulting in the percentage of preserved land being “dramatically understated.”

Rich goes on to call the subcabinet’s claim that the draft plan could result in the building of 339 residential subdivisions that annually produce 324,000 pounds of nitrogen pollution in local ecologically sensitive areas “fictional” and “totally inconsistent” with current and project growth patterns in the county.

“These are reckless contentions attempting to project a worst case scenario which will never happen,” Rich wrote.

Rich also noted that the draft plan projects 75 percent of future growth to occur in development districts, with the populations in Waldorf and La Plata respectively forecast to increase 58 and 116 percent by 2040.

“Directing growth to these centers is consistent if not the avowed purpose of ‘smart growth.’ Far different than the scenario set forth in your letter, the Rural Residential area will not be fully or even significantly developed within the planning horizon; it will remain agrarian in nature with limited large lot development buffered by forested riverine and estuarine zones which are protective of both habitat and water quality,” the letter states. “The view that the re-designation to Rural Residential will result in rampant rural development is unrealistic and not acceptable as a planning principle.”

The subcabinet’s letter was the latest in a series of rebukes from state department secretaries following the Charles County Planning Commission’s Aug. 5 approval of the draft plan. Maryland Department of Planning Secretary Rich Hall was the first to weigh in two days later, calling the commission’s vote “pitiful” on his personal Facebook page.

Maryland Department of Transportation Secretary James T. Smith was next, sending an Aug. 23 letter to commissioners’ President Candice Quinn Kelly (D), stating among other things that the draft plan was inconsistent with the county’s long-term goal of bringing light-rail mass transit to Waldorf and White Plains.

The commissioners voted 3-2 to send Smith a rebuttal letter Sept. 10, with Kelly and Commissioner Ken Robinson (D) opposed. The next day they received a letter similar to Smith’s from Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development Secretary Ray A. Skinner.

Commissioners’ Vice President Reuben B. Collins II (D) recommended at the board’s Sept. 24 meeting that Rich, whom the county had retained to provide counsel on land use matters, respond to the legal questions raised in the subcabinet’s letter. The board voted 4-1, with Robinson opposed, to have Rich continue “to advise us in this matter, and that could include, may include responding to state letters,” according to the motion as read by Kelly.

Kelly said Thursday she worded the motion specifically with the intent that Rich advise the board whether a response letter was appropriate, but a draft version of the letter already was prepared and presented to the commissioners for approval Tuesday during their closed session.

“My sense was that we would receive legal advice, and then there would be a second decision on whether to send the letter,” Kelly said.

Both Kelly and Robinson said they voted against sending Rich’s letter to the state, leaving Collins and Commissioners Debra M. Davis (D) and Bobby Rucci (D) in support.

“I personally feel it was unnecessarily antagonistic. I don’t feel it accomplished any purpose. By having a lawyer send this letter, it makes us seem defensive and a bit argumentative, and I don’t understand what that accomplishes,” Kelly said. “I don’t know that continuing to be snarky with the state is going to help us.”

“I in no way supported writing this letter,” Robinson said. “It is callous, totally unnecessary, and will do nothing more than further antagonize our state partners. It’s in effect a declaration of war on the state of Maryland, and ultimately it’s a war we cannot and should not win.”

Collins, Davis and Rucci did not respond to requests for comment.

Kelly suggested the draft plan — which mirrors a proposal from the Balanced Growth Initiative, a group of local land developers, farmers and business people — is a reaction to a 2012 state law, known as the “septic bill,” that severely limits residential growth on septic systems on agricultural and forested lands.

By relabeling the 2006 plan’s conservation areas as rural residential, developers hope to keep large areas of the county from being shut off to future growth, “so even if it’s trees or cornstalks they can’t put it in [a protected zone],” Kelly said. “That sounds like we’re trying to get around the system.”

Robinson said the county could have avoided much of the controversy over its comprehensive plan update if it had first completed work on overlay “tier” maps as required by the septic bill.

“I’m not sure what’s the end game in terms of what’s expected to be accomplished. I think it’s been made clear repeatedly what the state thinks about this, and I’m not sure what this letter from an outside attorney is supposed to accomplish,” Robinson said.

jnewman@somdnews.com