- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
Opponents of Charles County’s draft comprehensive plan update outnumbered supporters 3-to-1 Tuesday evening during a marathon, five-hour public hearing that left at least one county commissioner open to compromise.
It was standing-room only at the Charles County government building in La Plata as more than 300 people packed the hearing, several dozen opting to sit in the auditorium’s rarely used balcony.
A total of 173 people signed up to testify — 118 in opposition to the plan as approved by the Charles County Planning Commission, 42 in support and 13 who professed a neutral position.
The commissioners alternated between hearing from supporters and opponents while sprinkling in those listed as neutral. By the hearing’s midway point, the line of supporters was exhausted, while opponents carried on testifying for hours.
The planning commission passed the draft plan in August after drawing it to match the state-mandated septic “tier map” it approved a year ago as proposed by the Balanced Growth Initiative, a group of farmers, businesspeople and landowners opposed to the downzoning of rural and agricultural land.
While commissioners’ President Candice Quinn Kelly (D) and Commissioner Ken Robinson (D) have opposed the plan in step with environmentalists and residents concerned with sprawl growth, board Vice President Reuben B. Collins II (D) and Commissioners Debra M. Davis (D) and Bobby Rucci (D) have generally voted together in support of the plan’s direction, leaving many to presume its passage a foregone conclusion.
But Rucci said Thursday that the hearing left him looking for a middle ground.
“I wanted to hear from the people, and they want compromise,” Rucci said. “I think the people want something different. There are two different groups, and we need to find something between them. I don’t know the answer right now.”
But Kelly said a compromise was reached two years ago with the December 2011 release of the so-called “merged scenario,” which incorporated feedback gathered earlier that year during public “vision” sessions, charrettes and open houses. The merged scenario ultimately was discarded by the planning commission for the BGI plan.
“It’s not so much compromise as looking at the map as a board, not as two parallel boards or individuals,” Kelly said, adding that she would prefer to table the comprehensive plan and instead pass an alternative tier map.
A 2011 state law known as the “septic bill” requires counties to divide their land into four “tiers” identifying where new construction could be built on septic systems or public sewer. The BGI map tripled septic-eligible land and halved the space shut off to septic when compared to a map drawn by county staff. State agencies have said the BGI plan does not comply with the septic bill.
“Ultimately, the planning commission is appointed, and the tier map is our responsibility, and in doing so we will be giving the planning commission the guidance and direction they need,” Kelly said.
Robinson said Thursday that his feelings on the draft plan had not changed in light of Tuesday’s hearing.
“I was incredibly impressed by the turnout and by how particularly articulate and organized the opposition to the comp plan was,” he said. “I honestly cannot predict what my colleagues will do. I hope they realize since they have slept on it since Tuesday that the citizens are overwhelmingly opposed to this plan. And that’s the reason for public hearings, to find out how our citizens feel on issues, and I think it’s abundantly clear in this case, their feelings are overwhelming.”
Collins and Davis did not return calls seeking comment.
During the hearing, 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,” Charles County Farm Bureau President David Hancock Jr.
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.”
Maryland Department of Planning Secretary Richard Hall said he was “hopeful” a compromise could be reached. Opposition to the draft plan from state agencies has been unanimous.
“There’s a lot of growth projected for this county over time. You won’t see it tomorrow, next week necessarily, but 30 miles away as the crow flies from the nation’s capital, this is certainly going to be an area that’s going to grow over time,” Hall said. “To grow in a smart way, it’s going to take a very smart plan, and I think we can make the draft plan that you have before you smarter.”
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 have 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 BGI, 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.”
Charles County National Association for the Advancement of Colored People President Janice Wilson said the draft plan “makes sense to us.”
“That’s the reason that people move here — affordable housing, good schools, safe communities, good shopping,” she said. “This has all been done by smart, controlled growth for the past 43 years.”
Still, many who spoke doubted the draft plan would benefit all citizens.
“If any African-American in this crowd feels that politicians or Realtors or developers are their best friends, they’re delusional, because it just doesn’t happen that way,” Beverly Deniston of Charlotte Hall said.
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?”