- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
The Charles County commissioners will conduct a public hearing on the draft 2012 comprehensive plan update Tuesday, nearly one year after work on the plan originally was scheduled to be completed.
If previous public meetings on the plan are any indication, the hearing promises to be divisive and chock-full of fiery comments predicting either environmental doom or economic catastrophe depending on how the commissioners act.
Debate about the plan has grown exceedingly contentious since the process officially began in March 2011, continuously pitting environmentalists and smart growth advocates against businesses and landowners seeking to protect property values.
As both sides drew battle lines, subsequent proposals from county staff and a pro-growth group have fueled political discord and public distrust of government, with no foreseeable sign of compromise.
How did we get here?
Long, winding road
The process of updating the county’s 2006 comprehensive plan began innocently enough with a public kickoff in March 2011 and a land use marketplace forum featuring a panel of development and growth experts a month later.
In Maryland, local comprehensive plans are updated every six years.
That May, the Charles County Planning Commission began considering a staff-proposed amendment to add a priority preservation area — where 80 percent of undeveloped land would be slated for preservation — to either the 2006 plan or the 2012 update.
At the same time, the county held four “vision” sessions in Waldorf, Newburg, Indian Head and Nanjemoy, where residents cited several issues they wanted prioritized in the comprehensive plan update, including smart growth, a walkable Waldorf, the county’s light-rail initiative, rural poverty, ecotourism, an end to the cross-county connector project and preservation of Bryans Road, the Mattawoman Creek watershed and forested land.
Four charrettes, or collaborative planning sessions, followed at the same four locations, where residents and county staff reviewed comments from the vision sessions and settled on community priorities.
Following the charrettes, county planners drafted three zoning scenarios: one that prioritized natural resource preservation, featured a large PPA, and focused growth in Waldorf, La Plata and Indian Head; another that distributed growth across the county and omitted a PPA; and one that concentrated growth along the U.S. 301 corridor and included a smaller PPA.
From the beginning, farmers voiced opposition to the first map, which would have potentially downzoned the housing density of rural and farm lands, where one house is allowed for every three acres of property, to one house for every 20 acres in some areas of the Mattawoman Creek and Zekiah Swamp watersheds. They argued that reducing the number of homes that could be built on the land would reduce its value, while supporters of the scenario said talk of decreasing land values was overstated and not supported by data.
The team charged with drafting update proposals — composed of county planning staff and environmental consultants, deemed the second scenario, which was favored by business groups, unpopular following the charrettes — and dropped it from consideration ahead of an October 2011 open house, where it instead presented the first map and an altered version of the third proposal that included focused growth along Route 210, a scaled-down cross-county connector, a planned Indian Head tech park and increased development in Bryans Road.
Soon thereafter, a new group of county landowners and businesses that would ultimately come to be known as the Balanced Growth Initiative formed in opposition to the first map — favored by environmentalists and smart growth proponents — and offered timid endorsement of the tweaked third scenario, though it promised to draft and present its own preferred alternative.
At the same time, the Maryland Department of the Environment denied permits for the final three phases of the cross-county connector — long decried as a fiscal boondoggle — to the delight of local environmentalists, who view the project as an ecological disaster.
The county eventually released its so-called “merged scenario” at a December 2011 public meeting.
An amalgamation of the four previously drafted maps, the map emphasized concentrated, mixed-use development in Waldorf, La Plata and Indian Head, and smaller-scale new development in rural villages such as Hughesville and Bryans Road. It also would have downzoned stream valleys to one unit per 10 acres — and one unit per 20 acres near Mattawoman Creek — while converting much of the deferred development district spanning western Waldorf and White Plains into a rural conservation area. It omitted the cross-county connector but retained the Indian Head tech park.
Public feedback was split on the merged scenario, with developers, business groups and farmers claiming the plan was unbalanced, would hurt commerce and rob people their property values. Meanwhile, environmentalists and smart growth advocates wished the proposal had done more to protect the environment but were ultimately grateful it turned the county away from sprawl and toward high-density development in existing population centers.
12 dysfunctional months
A year marred by disagreement and vocal sparring on the planning commission got an early start in January 2012, when then-Chairman Courtney Edmonds compared BGI statements to the racist tactics of anti-segregation groups in the 1970s.
The ensuing controversy set the stage for a yearlong standoff pitting then-Vice Chairman Joe Richard and members Lou Grasso, Bob Mitchell and Joan Jones against Edmonds and members Joe Tieger and Steve Bunker.
The same month as Edmonds’ statement, the planning commission decided on a split vote in January 2012 to table the PPA amendment, but inaction put it before the county commissioners five days later, 60 days after the public comment period expired.
That February, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers rejected permits to fill in wetlands for the cross-county connector in a letter deeming the project detrimental to the environment and public interest.
But despite permit denials from MDE and the Army Corps, the planning commission decided on 4-3 votes to keep the project in the 2012 comprehensive plan, sparking outrage from those who participated in the “vision” sessions and charettes, who claimed the commission had ignored public calls to be done with the connector.
Meanwhile, debate about and the eventual passage of the Sustainable Growth and Agricultural Preservation Act — which is known as the “septic bill” because it limits growth on septic systems — along with implementation of a state smart growth initiative known as PlanMaryland sparked resentment in rural corners of the state, which alleged state interference with local land use planning.
The “septic bill” required counties to draw and submit to the state maps divided into four “tiers” identifying where new construction could be built on septic systems or public sewer. It designates land already served by sewer systems as Tier I, and land that is intended to be served by sewer in the future as Tier II. Septic systems will only be allowed in subdivisions in Tier III areas, which include nonagricultural, nonforested areas where there are no plans to build public sewer. Only limited growth on septics will be allowed in Tier IV zones, which are reserved for farming and forest preservation.
A planner with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources told the commissioners in July 2012 that the comprehensive plan update could be the county’s last chance to ensure the Mattawoman did not suffer irreversible damage due to deforestation and development.
Later that month, the commissioners voted 3-2 to put off work on a tier map, as required under the septic bill, which in turn delayed the comprehensive plan.
But in order to meet the state-mandated December deadline for passing a tier map, the commissioners voted in August 2012 to separate the county’s tier map from the comprehensive plan, despite recommendations from county staff and state planners that the two zoning maps be completed jointly, given that they must mirror each other.
That same month commissioners’ President Candice Quinn Kelly (D) revealed in an email newsletter that she had suggested to her colleagues months before removing certain planning commission members due to its dysfunction.
Debate about the septic bill raged during September 2012, with farmers parking tractors outside the county government and packing a public hearing on a staff-proposed tier map in general opposition to the law but also in support of a map drawn by BGI, which tripled Tier III and halved Tier IV as compared to the staff map.
The commission’s majority rejected the staff-proposed tied map a month later and asked staff to return with a revised version. This came weeks after the commission voted 4-3 to censure Edmonds, a showing of strong disapproval, with the majority citing a “circus-like atmosphere” under his leadership.
When staff returned with the same map during a November 2012 work session, the commission instead voted 4-2 to pass its only alternative, the BGI map. Staff members and the board’s minority members protested the decision, claiming the proposal did not comply with the state law because it placed large swaths of the county zoned as rural conservation under the 2006 comprehensive plan in Tier III, in conflict with the septic bill.
Later that month, the planning commission voted 5-2 to pass a comprehensive plan update drawn to match BGI’s tier map, relabeling the county’s rural conservation zone as rural residential and maintaining its three-homes-per-acre density.
The county commissioners again sparked controversy at the beginning of 2013, delaying action to replace Grasso — whose term on the planning commission had expired with 2012 — and either replace or reappoint Edmonds and Jones, who were eligible for another term.
In a February letter and report to the county, the Maryland Department of Planning called the draft 2012 update “the most drastic policy reversal in a comprehensive plan that this agency has ever seen.” The Maryland Department of Natural Resources said the draft was inconsistent with state planning goals, and the Maryland Department of the Environment said it neglected to address water quality in the county. Only the Maryland Department of Transportation gave positive comments on the plan, stating it aligned with the county’s light-rail goals. The report followed a letter from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service asking the county to do more to protect waterways in the comprehensive plan.
In March, Kelly unsuccessfully moved to oust Grasso and Richard from the planning commission after the two berated county Planning Director Steve Ball for failing to inform the commission of a 17th-century archaeological site found at the location of a proposed Waldorf business park.
Then on April 30, the commissioners vote unanimously, with Kelly absent, to appoint two new members to the planning commission — Charlotte Hall farmer Gilbert “Buddy” Bowling Jr. and White Plains resident Kenneth Smith — reappoint Jones, and appoint Bunker as chairman. Edmonds was not reappointed, despite having support from Kelly and Commissioner Ken Robinson (D) and being originally nominated to the chairmanship by commissioners’ Vice President Reuben B. Collins II (D).
Smart growth advocates and environmentalists mustered at a late May forum headlined by formed Gov. Parris N. Glendening espousing the virtues of smart growth and the cost of sprawl development.
Planning staff presented a report in June showing 54 percent of the county’s 2012 residential growth has occurred within the development district, well short of the 2006 comprehensive plan’s goal of 75 percent. Planning commission members who voted for the draft plan took exception with the report and voted to delay its approval.
The commission ultimately met its self-imposed Aug. 5 deadline and approved 5-2 a draft comprehensive plan update, sending the controversial document to the commissioners for final approval.
Backlash from the state has been unanimous ever since. Two days later after the commission’s vote, MDP Secretary Rich Hall called the plan “pitiful” on his personal Facebook page. MDOT Secretary James Smith wrote Kelly on Aug. 23 to express concerns with the draft plan, principally that it endangered the county’s light-rail initiative by encouraging sprawl development and de-emphasizing the kind of smart-growth policies federal and state agencies look for when doling out construction funds.
The majority of the commissioners then voted to respond to Smith’s letter with one drafted by Collins, an act Kelly called “irresponsible and reckless” given the light-rail project’s reliance on state funding. Both she and Robinson refused to sign Collins’ letter.
Department of Housing and Community Development Secretary Raymond A. Skinner followed with a Sept. 11 letter stating that the draft plan “signal[s] a policy shift away from smart growth and preservation of natural resources to promoting low-density sprawl development.”
The state’s opposition reached comedic levels a week later, when a letter signed by Gov. Martin O’Malley’s Smart Growth Subcabinet arrived citing “serious concerns” with the draft plan.
The letter was signed by a dozen department heads, including Hall, Smith and Skinner. It alleged the draft update would result in a decrease in the amount of county land slated for preservation from 82 percent to 8 percent, which would be the lowest level in the state by a wide margin. The next lowest would be Montgomery County, which has 33 percent of its land marked for resource conservation, but also boasts a population six times that of Charles. Most counties have 80 percent or more of their land slated for resource conservation, including Calvert and St. Mary’s.
During the county’s annual “tour” meeting with state transportation officials Sept. 24, Smith defended his letter while stressing that the county retains final say over its comp plan while reiterating that low-density development conflicts with federal standards for transit projects.
“What it was intended to do was to let you know that depending on what your land use plan is, [it] could seriously impact, and probably would seriously impact, your vision and your top priority of getting the mass transit to Waldorf,” Smith said at the meeting.
The commissioners again approved a rebuttal earlier this month, this time in response to the subcabinet’s letter. One a split vote, with Kelly and Robinson opposed, the commissioners sent a letter drafted by an Annapolis attorney retained by the county to provide counsel on land use matters.
Polling has been inconclusive on where county residents stand on the draft plan, and seemingly reflects whatever position has been taken by the group that commissioned the poll.
Last month, 1000 Friends of Maryland, a Baltimore-based environmental group opposed to the draft plan, published results of a July survey of 401 county residents showing that 71 percent felt county officials were working too closely with developers on the plan, and 93 percent want the plan to preserve property values as well as local waterways. It also listed 71 percent of respondents as opposed to the cross-county connecter.
Former state delegate Murray Levy, a lobbyist representing BGI, said the group had conducted its own poll earlier this year of 404 county residents, 69 percent of whom supported the cross-county connector.
As of now, signs point to the commissioners approving the draft plan as proposed by the planning commission. Robinson has made public comments all but conceding defeat, referring to the matter as a foregone conclusion, while opponents have pointed to the selection of Bowling and Smith — who both voted for the plan — as indicative of how Collins and Commissioners Debra M. Davis (D) and Bobby Rucci (D) will vote.
Opponents have said a compromise was reached with the merged scenario, only to see the process hijacked and the compromise dismantled once BGI entered the fray.
“It’s been a long fight. The battle lines are drawn. We believe the three commissioners will make the right decision, continue 43 years of planning, during which time the county has preserved its rural area and at the same time become the third-wealthiest county in the state and 11th-wealthiest county in the nation,” Levy said in a Wednesday interview.
Kelly said Thursday she still is hopeful a compromise can be reached, beginning with sending the comprehensive plan back to the planning commission so the commissioners can pass a tiers map in accordance with the septic bill.
“The buck stops here, and its time for the commissioners to do the job the people elected them to do. We are responsible for this county’s future, not an appointed board, and we need to stop hiding behind them,” Kelly said. “State agencies have already made it clear to us that they’re not playing. The citizens elected us, not the planning commission, and now it’s time for us to do our job.”
If you go
A public hearing for input on the draft 2013 Charles County Comprehensive Plan will be held at 7 p.m. Oct. 29 at the county government building, 200 Baltimore St., La Plata.
Speaker sign-in will begin at 5:30 p.m.
The draft plan is available at www.CharlesCountyPlan.org/document-library or at the county government building by contacting Amy Blessinger at 301-645-0650 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Citizens who wish to make oral or written comments are encouraged to attend. Individuals or representatives of groups wishing to speak must sign in. Each speaker will be allotted three minutes. Individuals representing organizations will have five minutes. The county commissioners can extend the time allotted for the hearing.
Citizens, groups or organizations may submit written comments instead of or in addition to oral testimony. Send to Charles County Government, Denise Ferguson, Clerk to the Commissioners, P.O. Box 2150, La Plata, MD 20646.