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Nearly 150 sign up for chance to address commissioners

By JEFF NEWMAN

Staff writer

It was standing room only as more than 300 people packed the auditorium at the Charles County government building in La Plata for a Tuesday evening public hearing on the county’s draft comprehensive plan update, the most divisive piece of local policy in recent memory.

About half of those in attendance signed up to speak before the county commissioners, with county staff splitting speakers into those in support of and against the plan, as well as 13 residents who professed to have a neutral position.

The public debate over the update to the current 2006 comprehensive plan has hardly been neutral since it started in March 2011, pitting environmental concerns and smart growth initiatives against business interests and property rights.

Throughout the hearing, applause from the audience was comparable for speakers on both sides of the debate.

The Charles County Planning Commission approved the draft plan in August. It has been supported by business owners and farmers and decried by environmentalists and residents who favor smart growth over sprawl development. The plan is now before the Charles County commissioners.

La Plata resident Brandon Moon undoubtedly spoke for dozens in the room when he kicked off the hearing by calling the process of updating the plan “a farce” and calling for compromise over the draft plan.

“This hearing is not about property rights, just like the Civil War was not about property rights. This is about right and wrong,” Moon said.

Farmers have resisted proposals to downzone the housing density of rural areas of the county from one unit per three acres as currently allowed to one unit per as many as 20 acres of land. Doing so would dramatically reduce the land’s potential, and thus its value, farmers argue.

“It is not a perfect plan, but it does not rob us of our property rights,” Newburg farmer and Charles County Farm Bureau President David Hancock Jr said.

Hancock mentioned that a consistent argument made by those against the draft plan is the repeated feedback from state agencies denouncing it.

“The biggest enemy the farmers have right now is [Gov.] Martin O’Malley. He’s killing us,” Hancock said. “Baltimore and Montgomery County elect our governor, but we elect you guys. We need you to stand up for us.”

Speaking on the behalf of the Charles County Board of Education, member Pamela A. Pedersen said the board “would be remiss if it did not share its concerns with the draft comprehensive plan.”

Pedersen said 22 of the county’s 35 schools are overcrowded according to a state-rated capacity formula, and that seven of the schools are over “core” capacity, the metric the county used to use to gauge school overcrowding.

Overcrowded schools has led to rampant redistricting in recent years, and subsequent angst for the students who have had to switch schools and their parents.

“We don’t want to be in a position of moving our children again because of unpredictable growth,” Pedersen said.

Former county commissioners’ president and state delegate Murray Levy, now a lobbyist representing the Balanced Growth Initiative, said the draft plan is an extension of 43 years of sound planning that has helped the county prosper into one of the wealthiest in the nation.

“It’s called progress,” he said. “We should not have to choose between the environment and economic prosperity.”

The county’s prosperity “didn’t just happen by coincidence,” BGI member and Western Charles County Business Association President Vince Hungerford said. “It is the result of, among other things, having a reasonable land use plan in place.”

Nanjemoy resident Johnny DeGiorgi, who has announced intentions to run for county commissioner in 2014, spoke in opposition to the draft plan, in part because it includes the cross-county connector project as a lingering priority despite denied state and federal permits.

“It was denied, so why is the cross-county connector even being talked about?” DeGiorgi asked. “What part of denied do you not understand?”

jnewman@somdnews.com