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The work group appointed by the Charles County commissioners to draw and propose a septic tiers map limited its discussions to broad concepts during its first meeting Wednesday at the county government building in La Plata, but its six members did agree to have their meetings recorded and broadcast for public viewing.

The panel also set its next two meetings for 9 a.m. Jan. 27 and Feb. 3, though members acknowledged that it might be necessary to meet more than once weekly in order to complete their work by the Feb. 28 deadline set by the commissioners.

Members also agreed that their primary task was to first draw a tier map, and then make recommendations on the county’s draft comprehensive plan update that reflect the tier map proposal.

“It’s my interpretation [that] the main thing they want from us is our recommendation for a tier map,” Maryland Department of Planning Secretary Rich Hall said. “However, they also want our thoughts about how that tier map would affect the draft comp plan because obviously the two go together.”

In addition to Hall, the panel is made up of Charles County Planning Commission Chairman Steve Bunker, Vice Chairman Joseph Richard, farmer David Lines, developer Doug Meeker and former Calvert County Planning Director Greg Bowen.

To continue building major subdivisions on septic systems, counties are required by a 2012 state law to map where such growth will be permitted.

Known as the “septic bill,” the Sustainable Growth and Agricultural Preservation Act requires the maps be divided into four “tiers.” Land already served by sewer systems resides in Tier I, while land planned for future sewer services lies in Tier II. Major subdivisions served by septic systems only are allowed in Tier III, which is reserved for nonagricultural and nonforested areas where there are no plans to build public sewer. Only limited growth on septic is permitted in Tier IV, which is reserved for farming and forest preservation.

There has been little debate between the state and local jurisdictions about which areas are or will be served by sewer, but controversy has arisen about how much land counties should include in Tier III versus Tier IV.

“The only thing that I think there could be debate on what is and what is not, is areas dominated by [agricultural] and forest land,” Hall said, noting that “90 percent” of the tier maps are determined by counties’ existing zoning, sewer areas and preservation zones.

In helping 14 counties draw tier maps, the state planning department has had significant disagreement with only Cecil County, Hall said.

“I’m really hopeful that we can work together and come up with something that works for everyone,” he said. “That’s of course easier said than done, but I’m an eternal optimist.”

All six members agreed that the group’s meetings should be taped and broadcast. The commissioners voted 3-2 last week to not broadcast live the panel’s meetings, with commissioners’ Vice President Reuben B. Collins II (D) saying he wanted to leave that decision up to the work group.

“I think it’s important,” Bunker said.

“I would concur with Steve, that if it’s technically possible, that the proceedings should be [taped],” Richard said. “I think it’s important for transparency.”

“I’m fine with it. Transparent as possible is a good policy,” Hall said. “I guess I’ll have to wear a tie.”

“I wasn’t crazy about the idea because I can’t use bad words,” Lines said jokingly.

Bunker wrote the commissioners after being appointed to the work group to raise concerns about the panel’s role with the comprehensive plan. State law places responsibility for developing comprehensive plans with each county’s planning commission, and Bunker worried the work group might undermine that authority.

He told the panel Wednesday that he received assurances from County Administrator Mark Belton and the county attorney’s office that any significant recommendations on the draft plan would go back to the planning commission. He asked staff to confirm that commitment with the commissioners.

Bowen also asked that the commissioners guarantee proper procedures would be followed with regard to the draft plan.

“Maryland law is pretty clear that comprehensive plans are prepared and approved by the planning commission, so I don’t see any problems with an outside body, including this one, making recommendations, but I agree. It has to go back to the planning commission,” he said.

Richard said the commissioners could make minor changes to the draft plan without sending it back to the planning commission.

“They have the option to make modification changes,” he said. “From my point of view, the actions of the planning commission are complete.”

Hall suggested analyzing land preservation programs for the county as part of its package of recommendations.

“I think it would be good to come up with some land preservation options,” Bowen said. “I think that there’s a great future for agriculture in Charles County because it’s strategically located. The local food movement is just starting to really take off in Maryland, and Charles County is well positioned for that.”

As planning director in Calvert County, Bowen helped develop and oversee a transferable development rights program often praised as one of the best in the state.

“It has its challenges. I spent many years tweaking the TDR program to keep it working and functioning well in Calvert County, so I would like to see what Rich is suggesting,” Bowen said.

St. Mary’s County also has taken innovative approaches in designating its Tier IV and priority preservation areas, he said.

“Maryland has been the state of innovation for land preservation. I think there’s some great options out there,” Bowen said.

“Calvert County clearly is a leader in land preservation,” Richard said. “We’re a little different here in Charles County. It’s hard to equate the two in general overall concept, but as we move forward, one of the key elements here is the protection of our agricultural community, and the farmers in particular,” Richard said.

Bowen said the county’s public transit and housing goals also will be incorporated into the panel’s deliberations.

“Ultimately we’re going to be touching on a number of issues and how all of these can relate to achieve long-term objectives,” he said.

Bunker recommended that Charles County Planning Director Steve Ball or a designated staff member familiar with the tier map attend meetings.

Richard also asked for clarification on whether panel members would be allowed to communicate between meetings via email.

Members left the meeting optimistic that compromise was possible within the limited five-week timeframe, though Bunker and Richard did disagree during a post-meeting powwow with Hall about whether the group should begin its work. Bunker wanted the group to begin from scratch, whereas Richard believed the tier map approved by the planning commission — originally submitted by the Balanced Growth Initiative, a pro-growth group — should serve as the panel’s base document.

Both Bunker and Hall intimated that the BGI map was a clear violation of the septic bill, but the planning secretary seemed nonetheless encouraged.

“I don’t think we could have gotten off to a better start,” Hall said.

jnewman@somdnews.com