Share on Facebook
Share on Twitter
E-mail this article
Print this Article

The six-member panel charged with drawing a state-mandated septic tier map for Charles County failed to do so by its Feb. 28 deadline and instead presented the county commissioners Tuesday with a staff-drawn template for further consideration.

The commissioners voted unanimously to table the matter until their next weekly meeting March 11, but seemed encouraged and ready to move forward with the template provided by the work group.

Commissioner Ken Robinson (D) said the map “feels like déjà vu,” in that it resembled the tier map originally proposed by staff in fall 2012, before the Charles County Planning Commission instead opted for a map drawn by the Balanced Growth Initiative, a pro-growth group.

“I’m real happy about that. I certainly supported that map,” Robinson said. “I’m glad to see us back to the future, so to speak.”

Robinson made a motion to reject the BGI map, but commissioners’ Vice President Reuben B. Collins II (D), who originally proposed the work group in early January, asked that the board move forward with the panel’s recommendations without voting the BGI plan down.

Members of the work group present for the commissioners’ meeting agreed that the template merely needed tweaks before being approved as a final map.

“I think it’s truly a map where nobody’s really happy with it, so it’s probably a good compromise,” panel member Doug Meeker said.

Commissioner Bobby Rucci (D) suggested the board take up the template next week during a work session, “for however long it takes, to get it done.”

Robinson entered a motion mirroring Rucci’s request, and it passed unanimously.

In addition to the template map, the group attached to its proposal two parameters recommended at its final meeting by Meeker — that the commissioners reach final designations for Tiers III and IV after taking existing residential development into account and that Tier II zones be considered for expansion to include nearby areas with failing septic systems.

“This isn’t the map, but this is a template for a map that needs to be tweaked, and we leave it in the hands of elected officials who should be making those tough decisions,” former Calvert County Planning Director Greg Bowen said at the meeting.

The group selected Bowen to present its work before the commissioners. Maryland Department of Planning Secretary Richard Hall and former Charles County planning commission member Joseph Richard acknowledged Bowen had become the panel’s primary “facilitator” during the course of its seven meetings.

Planning commission Chairman Steve Bunker and La Plata farmer David Lines round out the panel.

During the Feb. 28 meeting, MDP senior planner Graham Petto delivered a slideshow presentation highlighting six Tier III areas on the staff map the department considered “problematic” due to large forested tracts currently without homes.

Lines reiterated that farmers that did not want their properties placed in Tier IV “because it limits their options.”

“I’m taking it about as far as we think we can allow,” Hall said.

Tier 3 allows development in approved major subdivisions with septic systems. Tier 4 only allows minor subdivisions of seven homes or fewer.

Lines suggested placing “an experimental area in the western part of the county” in Tier IV for 10 years as a trial run to determine what effect the designation has on land values.

Bowen, who in Calvert County oversaw land preservation programs that include the downzoning of land, questioned Lines’ skepticism concerning the effect of downzoning.

“You’re right in saying that I don’t buy your concern, and the reason is I’ve seen it in a number of cases where counties that have proactively said where they want to protect and remain in agriculture, and particularly those that have good land preservation programs, their farmland values have gone up, not gone down, and I know that sounds counterintuitive,” Bowen said. “I know there’s a lot of reasons you might question that, but ... the bottom line is agriculture areas with stronger, more proactive plans to protect agriculture actually have maintained or increased property values.”

Bowen said he could not support the solution proposed by Lines on behalf of the Charles County Farm Bureau at an earlier meeting “because I don’t think it meets the intent of the law, and I don’t want the county to be back in that no man’s land that is true in Cecil County, where you don’t know where you can develop or not.”

Cecil County currently is at odds with the state concerning its tier map.

Bunker called the staff map “pretty close” and agreed to the final recommendations but expressed concerns about the effect one-to-one zoning could have in Tier III areas.

“If you assume they’re going to be developed, it’s going to create some infrastructure issues,” he said.

Hall and Bowen described the tier map as a fluid document open to future changes.

“It’s in the control of the county, and the county changes its tier map as it changes its zoning and its water and sewer categories,” Bowen said.

“But it really isn’t that simple though,” Meeker countered. “You have to acknowledge the fact that anything that gets put into Tier IV now is probably never going to come out of Tier IV later.”

“I completely disagree,” Bowen said, as Meeker shook his head. “It’s not within the state’s purview to deny a county’s planned zoning and water and sewer categories, so I think the tier maps are going to change as the county grows.”

With a final map seemingly outside the panel’s reach, Richard suggested using the staff map as a template, calling it a “90 percent solution” that would help quicken passage of a tier map and end ongoing disagreement between the county and state concerning the map and comprehensive plan.

“When you’re the 12th-richest county in the nation, you’ve got to be able to function, and having a continuous battle royal with the state government is not helpful,” Richard said.