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Under the impression its work was finished, the six-member panel charged with drawing a state-mandated septic tier map for Charles County agreed to meet again today after presenting the county commissioners with an incomplete proposal Tuesday.

The panel fell short of accomplishing its task by the Feb. 28 deadline, so instead of a final map, it submitted a near-finished template drawn by state and county staff 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.

However, board Vice President Reuben B. Collins II (D), who originally proposed the work group in early January, seemed thrown that it had not reached consensus on a final tier map as originally charged.

“When will we be able to see a final product, and how will that final product be put together?” Collins asked.

Presenting the template on behalf of the work group, former Calvert County Planning Director Greg Bowen said the panel had reached an impasse over how to designate specific areas of the county, calling it “pretty fine work” better left to professional state and county planning staff.

The work group is comprised of Bowen, Maryland Department of Planning Secretary Richard Hall, Charles County Planning Commission Chairman Steve Bunker, former commission member Joseph Richard, La Plata farmer David Lines and local developer Doug Meeker.

Collins said it was “fundamental in the actual charge that the working group would actually draft and come up with a tier map that would be voted up or down by the county commissioners.”

Commissioners' President Candice Quinn Kelly (D) countered that, “Fundamentally, there was also an expectation that this would finish on Feb. 28, so we find ourselves in the position of deciding which fundamentals we really think are the most fundamental.”

Commissioner Ken Robinson (D) deemed the template “incredibly similar” to the tier map initially proposed by county 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.

“This feels like déjà vu all over again,” Robinson said. “I'm real happy about that. I certainly supported that [staff] map. I'm glad to see us back to the future, so to speak.”

Robinson made a motion to reject the BGI map, which Kelly seconded. Collins asked that the board move forward with the panel's recommendations without voting the BGI plan down.

Kelly said the board needed to take into account the cost associated with devoting any additional staff time to the tier map.

“We are now two years into this … and where we are is pretty much where we were with the staff maps. They're very close,” she said.

A 2012 state law known as the “septic bill” requires counties to map where they will allow major subdivisions to be built on septic systems.

The maps must be drawn in four “tiers.”

Tier I is reserved for land already served by sewer systems, while areas planned for future sewer service reside in Tier II. Major subdivisions on septic are only allowed in Tier III, which is reserved for nonagricultural and nonforested lands where there are no plans for sewer. Only minor subdivisions on septic are allowed in Tier IV, which is intended for farm and forest preservation. In Charles County, a major subdivision is more than seven lots.

There has been little debate between the state and local jurisdictions on which areas are or will be served by sewer, but there has been disagreement about how much land counties should place in Tiers III and IV. Property owners have argued that placing their land in Tier IV robs it of its development potential and subsequent value.

In addition to the template, the work group presented the commissioners with 11 recommended amendments to the county's comprehensive plan, including the creation of a purchase of development rights program; a $5 million loan fund for land trusts; and a local agriculture, forestry and fisheries advisory board.

Kelly told Bowen that the recommendations have been “on our radar” since February 2011 when outreach meetings first were held on a potential priority preservation area.

“I'm not in support of letting this thing languish while we continue to ask you to do the heavy lifting that we need to be doing,” she said. “You've done a great job, and what you have done is make it very clear this is the template, this is the baseline, this is where we need to be in order to comply with the law. It's what we knew two years ago, and now I believe, by virtue of your work, that's been confirmed.”

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,” 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.

The group decided after the commissioners meeting to let state and county staff have a couple of days to draw the final tier lines before meeting today to approve a finished map, with an eye on presenting it to the board next week.

The work group also attached to its proposed template two parameters recommended by Meeker at its Feb. 28 meeting — 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,” Bowen said at the meeting.

MDP senior planner Graham Petto delivered a slideshow presentation highlighting six Tier III areas on the staff template that 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.

Bowen, who in Calvert County oversaw land preservation programs that included 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.”

jnewman@somdnews.com