The Charles County Planning Commission voted Monday evening to recommend the county commissioners proceed with the proposed expansion of the Zekiah Watershed Rural Legacy Area, but stipulated that mapping out a new rural legacy area in western Charles County should be a priority for next year.
The recommendation to create a new environmental conservation area was inspired at least in part by the urging of county residents who testified at a public hearing on the Zekiah plan last month and submitted written comments to the planning commission.
Rural legacy area designations provide local governments and private land trusts with an additional source of funds with which to purchase conservation easements from property owners. Other preservation designations such as Priority Preservation Areas come with funding set-asides of their own that can be used in combination with rural legacy area grants.
The proposed expansion of the Zekiah Swamp basin conservation area would roughly double the amount of land eligible for protection easements.
The county is seeking to expand the Zekiah rural legacy area in part because landowners in Allen’s Fresh and Cobb Neck have expressed interest in putting their land into conservation easements to preserve them from development. The proposed expansion would also encompass land that would be eligible for matched funding from the U.S. Navy to preserve it as a way to prevent encroachment by developers on the activities of Naval Support Facility Dahlgren across the Potomac River in Virginia.
Planning commission member Richard Viohl opened the discussion on the second rural legacy area when he made a motion, seconded by member Angela Sherard, that the county submit two rural legacy applications to the state for consideration in 2020, rather than just the one for the Zekiah Watershed extension.
In his motion, Viohl noted that both the county’s 2016 Comprehensive Plan and 2017 Land Preservation, Parks, and Recreation Plan recommended the creation of a Nanjemoy-Mattwoman rural legacy area.
“Both proposed applications warrant high priority for protecting Charles County’s outstanding agricultural, historical, cultural and environmental assets and would afford an additional funding opportunity for landowners on both the east and west sides of the county,” Viohl said.
Viohl said that he appreciated that preparing a proposal for consideration by the state “may be a challenge at this late date, recent funding increases and support from the state for the rural legacy program makes it incumbent that we take advantage of this opportunity while it presents itself.”
In order to qualify for approval by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources in 2020, the county would have to submit the proposal for the new rural legacy area along with the Zekiah Watershed proposal no later than February. The Maryland Board of Public Works would then have to review and approve the proposal.
County program director Charles Rice told the planning commission that the biggest hurdle to preparing a new proposal at this stage was that the area to be encompassed in the proposed western rural legacy area had yet to be defined.
“I’m certainly not one to say that it’s too much and it can’t be done, but at this point in the process, my main concern would be ... if you randomly ask folks what that boundary should look like ... I think you would get a different opinion and drawing of what that boundary should look like from each one of those folks,” Rice said. “Not to say that that’s bad; what it tells me is there is not consensus of what the area should look like.”
Rice counseled that county planning staff needed time to work with landowners in the Mattawoman Creek watershed to identify the area that the rural legacy area should encompass, so that the state natural resources department can conduct necessary studies and assessments.
“That drives everything else,” Rice said. “There is a ton of analysis that goes into that new application. Until you have that boundary established, you can’t do any of that analysis.”
Rice explained that he has heard multiple proposals for where a western rural legacy area could be located, and few of them overlap.
“Personally, my professional opinion is that we should take this coming year to embark on that and get the stakeholders together to work on narrowing down what it should look like, and then spend next year to go through this exact same process as we have with this Zekiah expansion, to involve the public and to make sure they’re aware of that,” Rice said.
Planning commission chair Wayne Magoon asked Rice if he anticipated that state funding for land preservation would still be available by the time a Nanjemoy-Mattawoman Rural Legacy Area proposal would be ready. Rice replied that from what he has seen and heard, he expected the budget would “remain pretty flush.”
As the discussion continued, Viohl pressed Rice about why the planning department had not made the proposed rural legacy area a priority despite being recommended in both the comp plan and the recreation plan. The comp plan identifies the establishment of a Nanjemoy-Mattawoman Rural Legacy Area as a short-term priority to be completed within one to three years. However, as the county commissioners have never passed enabling legislation to carry out most of the comp plan’s recommendations, that timeline was never more than advisory in practice.
At a public information meeting in August, four of the seven people spoke in support of the expansion of the Zekiah Watershed Rural Legacy Area and requested the county undertake a similar program in western Charles County. Of the written comments received by the county related to the Zekiah expansion, nearly half supported the establishment of a separate conservation area in western Charles County.
Planning commission chair Wayne Magoon noted that at least one comment received by the commission noted that the proposed new rural legacy area could impact property owners who were impacted by the downzoning of land in western Charles County for the Watershed Conservation District.
“While I think the western side of the county is absolutely deserving ... I think it’s the wrong time, only because I don’t know if we have the time to put it together that quickly,” Magoon said. “I think that there are a number of folks that are very interested in this process and where those lines are drawn, and how they might be compensated as opposed to where they are in zoning today.”
Rather than withdraw or change his motion, Viohl asked that the planning commission members go ahead and vote on it. The motion failed, with only Viohl voting in favor. Following that vote, Viohl made a second motion proposing that the planning commission recommend to the board of county commissioners that the Zekiah application proceed this year, and prioritize the definition of a western Charles County rural legacy area for submittal by February 2021. The vote in favor of Viohl’s second motion was unanimous.
“I think that that motion falls right in line with what staff would like to propose to the commissioners as we get to the end of this process for next year,” Rice said.
A public hearing before the county commissioners to consider whether to move ahead with the expansion of the Zekiah Watershed Rural Legacy Area is scheduled for Tuesday, Sept. 24.