Around 15 people turned out Monday night for a public information meeting on the county’s proposed expansion of the Zekiah Swamp basin conservation area, which would roughly double the amount of land eligible for protection easements.
County program director Charles Rice told attendees that the county is seeking to expand the Zekiah Watershed Rural Legacy Area, which currently extends south from the Prince George’s County border east of Waldorf to Route 6 around Dentsville, in part because landowners in Allen’s Fresh and Cobb Neck have expressed interest in putting their lands into conservation easements to preserve them from development.
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, in addition to funds allocated for other preservation designations such as Priority Preservation Areas.
Rice said that the county was “starting to see a little bit of waning interest from property owners” in the existing 30,000 acre legacy area, which was established in 1998.
Rice said that there were also compelling financial incentives available that make the timing good for an expansion of the Zekiah Rural Legacy Area further south, from Dentsville to Cobb Neck.
“We’re also in a time where there’s a pretty decent amount of funding from the state for these programs,” Rice explained. “We want to try to position ourselves to where we have a good pool of landowners that are interested, [which can lead to] a better chance of getting that grant funding.”
Rice said that 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.
“The noise that you may hear from Dahlgren, the Navy wants to see properties over here on this side of the Potomac preserved so they don’t have that conflict,” Rice explained.
The existing rural legacy area includes the state’s largest natural hardwood swamp forest, as well as over 50 historic sites, more than 100 archaeological sites and four locations that are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Landowners within the existing legacy area have placed 29 parcels totaling almost 4,400 acres into various types of conservation easements. The current legacy area also includes county parks as well as properties owned by the Maryland Historical Trust, the Maryland Environmental Trust and the Conservancy for Charles County.
Rural legacy area easements allow property owners to reserve certain development rights, but also place limits on residential construction as well as commercial and industrial uses to preserve the rural character of the land.
Monday’s public information meeting, which was held at the county government building in La Plata, was the third presentation in a series culminating in a review by the Maryland Board of Public Works that is anticipated to take place next August.
The Charles County Board of Commissioners gave their approval to pursue the proposed expansion in May, and the following month Rice presented the plan to the Charles County Planning Commission, which will hold its own public hearing later this month.
Rice said that a common misconception of rural legacy easements is that they grant public access to the land. Unless the owner wants to open the land up to visitors, parcels with rural legacy easements retain the characteristics of private property with regard to public access. Although the county is required to inspect rural legacy properties every three years, arrangements are made with the owner prior to the visit, and with the prevalence of aerial photography many site visits can be conducted remotely now.
The portion of the proposed addition between Routes 6 and 234 narrows in order to bypass several land parcels that are zoned for residential development, even though those parcels include the Gilbert Swamp Run watershed. Rice explained that the process of rezoning those parcels to incorporate them would be lengthy and could slow the process of expanding the rural legacy area.
“We wanted this to be as noncontroversial as possible,” Rice explained.
Property easements purchased under the rural legacy area program can be transferred from the county to other caretaker organizations but cannot be sold, Rice said. In certain situations, the county can use rural legacy funds to purchase land outright — called a “fee simple” purchase — if the owner is interested in selling the land rather than acquiring an easement for it.
In such a case, the county would turn around and sell the land to a caretaker organization and recycle the money back into the rural legacy program.
Should the planning commission give the proposal its blessing later this month, the county will then submit the proposal to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources in time for its next grant review cycle in February. Only if the grant is awarded will the plan go before the Board of Public Works for review.