Political injustice continues to occur in Charles County. The county is considering expanding the Zekiah Rural Legacy program. The proposed expansion highlights the disparate treatment of individuals residing in the eastern and western sides of Charles County.
The Zekiah program was established in 1998 to protect the Zekiah Watershed in eastern Charles County. Since 1998, officials have spent $18.5 million in tax dollars preserving 29 properties totaling 4,377 acres under the program. It is proper to compensate landowners when the government takes their land, or limits the owner’s ability to develop their property, thus decreasing its value.
Under the program, landowners retain certain development rights but agree that they cannot develop the remainder of the property under the current zoning of one dwelling unit per 3 acres. The property owner is compensated based on an appraisal accounting for the economic loss from giving up their development rights.
Which brings up the Watershed Conservation District, adopted by the former Board of County Commissioners after rejecting a Comprehensive Plan proposed by the independent Planning Commission and over strong objections by western county property owners. In January of 2017, the commissioners implemented the WCD and down-zoned over 9,000 different properties and over 35,000 acres to one dwelling unit per 20 acres. No compensation was provided to any landowner. There was no preservation of limited development rights.
To put this in perspective, a person who owns a 20-acre parcel on the eastern side of the county may have development rights for up to six lots. If those rights were appraised for $50,000 per lot, the loss of development rights would be appraised to be $300,000. On the western side and under the WCD, the 20-acre parcel would only contain one development right and may be appraised for $50,000 — a loss of a quarter-million dollars. The differential treatment between the eastern and western owners is stark. Eastern owners were compensated, and will again be compensated. No compensation was offered to western owners. It’s a simple question of fairness. Government should treat and compensate all property owners equally.
It’s fair to question why the new board has moved quickly to address expanding the Zekiah program but have taken no steps to address the injustice of the downzoning of 35,000 acres without compensation. The WCD and taking of land was a key issue in the 2018 election.
Compounding the issue is the demographic differences between the two areas. The Zekiah area is predominantly Caucasian. For example, the Bryantown area, part of the existing Zekiah area is, by looking at U.S. Census Bureau information, 81% Caucasian and 6.6% African American.
The proposed expansion of the Zekiah area will encompass areas in Bel Alton, Faulkner and Newburg. Per Census data, Bel Alton is 73.5% Caucasian and 19.4% African American, Faulkner is 86.9% Caucasian and Newburg is 75.7% Caucasian. The areas constituting the WCD are predominately African American.
Fostering demographic or racial inequality may have been an unintended consequence of the WCD. It appears to have been the result. Not a surprise. Historically, exclusionary zoning has a disparate impact on marginalized or poorer communities.
The equitable solution is to zone the WCD to a one dwelling per 3 acres. Then discuss or implement a program to compensate property owners for their land preservation.
The challenge is how to address the disparate economic impact of the WCD downzoning before extending additional financial benefits under the Zekiah program to more eastern property owners. Failure to do so raises an uncomfortable discussion about why these decisions are made and how all property owners can be compensated in a fair and equitable manner.
Jason Henry, Indian Head