Candidates for Calvert County Board of County Commissioners attempted to garner votes from seniors and the business community at back-to-back forums in Prince Frederick and Solomons last week.
The Calvert County Chamber of Commerce hosted a forum at the local College of Southern Maryland campus Sept. 26. There, candidates had 60 seconds to share their thoughts, many of them similar, on myriad topics to include the opioid crisis, ways to incentivize businesses and how to attract and retain young people in the county.
Candidate responses to the chamber’s question of how each perceive the relationship between the business community and county government, and how it should be, varied greatly, with some neglecting to address the issue.
“I do believe the current board of commissioners has routinely put the wants of developers and realtors over the needs of our citizens, from removing the buildout limit to try to pack 20,000 more people in the county, to an 83 percent expansion of Prince Frederick to combining Lusby and Solomons,” Democratic at-large candidate Matt Bennett said.
Bennett, a proponent of reasonable growth, said the county can find a better balance, prioritize local businesses and conduct studies before expanding.
Conversely, Republican District 3 candidate and small business owner Kelly McConkey said “I think we’re moving in the right direction” and the county is doing a better job working with businesses than when he first moved to Calvert.
“Twenty years ago when I came down here, I didn’t think our Planning and Zoning was very friendly. I think they’ve 100 percent turned that around. I think fast-tracking permits is a good thing so that businesses don’t have to wait so long,” McConkey said earlier, recalling his own challenges.
His opponent, District 3 candidate and small business owner Holly Heintz Budd (D), acknowledged complaints about Calvert being unfriendly toward businesses, but does not support McConkey’s approach.
“I’m not necessarily into fast-tracking because if you fast-track one business, you’re pushing somebody else to the bottom of the list,” Budd said, advocating for a “fair” process.
A small business owner running at large, incumbent Commissioner Steve Weems (R) said he can relate to the challenges expressed by the business community four to six years ago, but said future problems can be solved if county and businesses “work together, resolve matters and build consensus.”
“It appears today one sector has a better relationship than some of the other sectors,” fellow at-large candidate and farmer Earl “Buddy” Hance (R) said. “All sectors of the community should have the same voice when it comes to local government.”
Hance said there are some very good county employees, the county needs to support the small businesses and there are three parts to every story: “your side, my side and the truth. My job as a commissioner is to find out where the truth is.”
Democratic at-large candidate Greg Brown said there is a common perception in the county that a Small Business Interest Group “has an inside track with the current board of commissioners. Right or wrong.”
“What we must have in the governing body of Calvert County is a board of commissioners that have all of the people and all of the businesses, no matter what size, believe that their voice will be heard as well as anyone else’s,” Brown said, promising to be a “listener commissioner.”
“There’s a lot of fear mongering going on,” small business owner and incumbent District 1 Commissioner Mike Hart (R) said, noting there are no major developers coming to the county. “Did you ever think you’d be buying pants on Amazon?”
Hart pointed to bumps in the road with the business permitting process that starts at the state level. He rebuffed complaints with the county process giving major kudos to Planning and Zoning Director Mark Willis. Hart also said customer service in the county is up tremendously.
“Customer service — we lack customer service in the county. Instead of saying, ‘What can I do to help you, the businesses?’ you hear, ‘What do you want?’” District 1 Democratic challenger Tricia Powell said.
Powell said chain stores are fast-tracked, but everyone needs to be treated fairly and the county needs to provide a comprehensive resource list for startups.
“I’m pretty satisfied with what I see from the county in general in their cross-section of how they handle small businesses,” District 2 candidate Tim Hutchins (R) said, noting there is room for improvement.
Hutchins said “it is not an ‘us and them’ proposition” and that the government should work with the citizenry for the betterment of the county.
“Perception is very real out there that there is a favoritism towards certain types of businesses. True or not, the perception is there,” Hutchins’ District 2 opponent and farmer Susie Hance-Wells (D) said, later informing The Calvert Recorder that she was referring to developers.
Hance-Wells does believe there is an improved output in economic development, especially in the area of farm-to-table and other agricultural initiatives.
All 10 BOCC candidates also attended the Asbury Solomons retirement community’s forum hosted by the Patuxent Republican Club and the Riverside Democratic Club the next day, Sept. 27.
The clubs presented separate questions to each set of district or at-large candidates on topics ranging from schools to transparency. The topics of environment and preservation surfaced multiple times during the forum.
Sue Hu, Asbury resident and co-chair of the Go Green Committee, asked at-large and District 1 candidates what they believe are two major environmental concerns for the county.
“The excessive rain that we have,” Weems said, referring to challenges with runoff and stormwater management. “I believe we’re up to 40 inches in excess and all of that rain water … in our older communities along the [Chesapeake] Bay with lots that were recorded prior to zoning.”
Weems also said the county has to work with the state on environmental matters to include the Chesapeake Watershed Implementation Plan to ensure there is “a viable plan that is not a one size fits all.”
Hance said his two issues he has are really one: water. He said as a farmer it is important to protect soil, but it is also important to protect the Chesapeake Bay and Patuxent River for the long term.
“We need to pay more attention to what we are drawing out of our aquifers,” Hance said, noting it’s a regional issue and that Dominion Cove Point LNG is utilizing much of the water.
“Dominion uses 250,000 gallons a day. They could be using bay water in the desalination process, but it would cost them a little bit more money,” Bennett expanded, echoing Hance’s concerns.
“Making sure we have safe, sustainable water is more important than Dominion’s profit,” Bennett added.
Bennett said he learned aquifers are dropping 2 to 4 feet every year, calling it a “nightmare scenario” if the county runs out of water, which will be worsened by a growing population.
Brown noted he was endorsed by the Sierra Club of Southern Maryland and said the incoming board has the opportunity to promote clean energy jobs and encourage residents to put solar panels on their homes.
“It’s above us [and] we support the governor, but he’s got to enforce the federally mandated Clean Water Act,” Hart said, expressing concern for water pollution from elsewhere that comes through the Conowingo Dam.
Hart also expressed concern about mass septic tank failures and that the state is eventually going to mandate water and sewer.
“Dominion. I am concerned about the emissions. I am concerned about the water they’re taking from the aquifers. I am concerned about the safety of the residents,” Powell said.
McConkey and Budd were asked if they read the comprehensive plan in its entirety. Budd, who has a degree in environmental science and serves on the county’s Environmental Commission, said she has been reading and giving feedback on the plan as it develops.
Budd said she does not like the plan to expand town center boundaries and increase density without doing transportation studies and ensuring there is adequate water and schools.
“Before you can designate a town as a major town center or increase the volume or make Slusby [Solomons + Lusby], you need to know you have enough roads and things,” Budd added.
McConkey said he read portions of the comprehensive plan but it has changed so many times and until he sees the final draft he cannot comment on all the details of it.
“I don’t believe the current Board of County Commissioners are going to have the time to finish it. So it’s going to fall in our laps anyway,” McConkey said.
Hutchins and Hance-Wells also shared their vision for the county and thoughts on the comprehensive plan process.
“There are essentially four town centers along the axis of Maryland Route 2 and 4. That’s where the concentration of growth should be and that’s where our focus should be in how to do that,” Hutchins said during opening remarks.
Hutchins said proper time must be given for staff to develop and for people to read and comment on the plan, and to have a hearing or two, if necessary, but at some point in time it has to be voted on “in a timely, but open fashion.”
Hance-Wells, who said she supports both rural character and vibrant town centers, said her numerous years of experience on the county’s Planning Commission and Board of Appeals have given her a good knowledge of zoning and the comprehensive plan. She advocated for leaving a “window of opportunity” for further comment and study.
“I was part of public hearings and we almost always — I can’t remember a time when we made a decision at that public hearing,” Hance-Wells. “It more or less tells you what you said made no difference to us.”
Next stop for BOCC candidates will be the League of Women Voters’ forum from 5:30 to 8:45 p.m. Oct. 4 at St. John Vianney.