Charles County’s planning department has received approval to begin a public review process for expanding the Zekiah Swamp basin’s conservation region south of Route 6 to the southernmost tip of the county.
The existing Zekiah Watershed Rural Legacy Area extends from the Prince George’s County border east of Waldorf to the Dentsville area and encompasses 30,000 acres. It includes the state’s largest natural hardwood swamp forest.
The county is seeking to expand the RLA because of waning interest from property owners within the existing legacy area in putting their properties into conservation easements, according to county program director Charles Rice. Landowners in Allen’s Fresh and Cobb Neck, however, have expressed an interest in being able to apply for state grants that can be used to preserve their properties.
Having the rural legacy area designation in addition to other designations such as Priority Preservation Areas and legislatively mandated tier designations opens up additional funding avenues for property owners.
To date, landowners within the existing RLA have placed 29 parcels totaling almost 4,400 acres into various types of conservation easements. The current RLA also includes county parkland and properties owned by the Maryland Historical Trust, the Maryland Environmental Trust and the Conservancy for Charles County.
The Zekiah watershed area contains more than 50 historic sites, over 100 archaeological sites and several properties that are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The proposed expanded site also includes land that would be eligible for 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.
Rice said the Smithsonian Institution considers the watershed to be one of the East Coast’s most important ecological areas, and the state’s Department of Natural Resources has described Zekiah Swamp as the state’s most diverse ecosystem.
The Zekiah RLA won its designation in 1998, just a year after the RLA program was launched. It is one of five such areas in Southern Maryland.
The program is funded by a combination of county funds, state general obligation bonds and Maryland Program Open Space money.
Rice briefed the Charles County Board of Commissioners last month, when he received their approval to begin the public review process that the state requires before it will approve the proposed expansion. Last week, Rice briefed the Charles County Planning Commission as well.
In presenting the proposal to the planning commission, Rice explained that most of the properties in the area that would be encompassed by the expanded RLA already have zoning restrictions that limit what can be built on them, so the designation would not drastically curtail their development prospects.
“It’s making another preservation tool available for those landowners,” Rice said.
Planning commissioner Richard Viohl asked Rice if implementing the expanded RLA would have “negative repercussions” on the creation of a new Nanjemoy-Mattawoman Rural Legacy Area as called for in the county’s 2016 Comprehensive Plan.
Rice said that the process would not preclude the creation of the other RLA, but he would like to hear the public’s opinion on the matter.
“I would say issues related to that should come out during the public hearing process,” Rice said. “Certainly some counties have more than one area. I think it would be difficult to ask for too much at one time as far as putting more than one area forward to the state for approval, but I would be interested in the public comment that happens as part of this process as to whether this area is not as important perhaps as some other area in the county.”
The next step is a public information meeting that will be scheduled for sometime in July, followed by public hearings before the planning commission and county commissioners in August and September, respectively.
Planning commission chair Wayne Magoon expressed his hope that the public process would go smoothly.
“We’ve opened this door and hopefully we will continue down this path and get this through to the 2020 finish date,” Magoon said.
The county will formally apply to DNR for approval next February and expects to have a final ruling from the Maryland Board of Public Works next July.