Charles County’s Director of Economic Development Darrell Brown told the board of county commissioners on Tuesday that a biotechnology firm has expressed interest in taking over operations of the Maryland Airport, prompting a discussion about the fate of the adjacent property.
“We are currently working with a biotech company that is very interested in the airport,” Brown said.
The potential buyer is interested in the property not only for “product reasons,” as Brown put it, but also because it has its own fleet of airplanes.
Brown added that the potential buyer was aware of current and potential zoning restrictions on the property, and “it has not been a deterrent at this point.”
“I want to be clear about this,” Brown reiterated. “We do have a legitimate business operator that is financially well-heeled that is in contact with the representatives of the Maryland Airport, working with their brokers.”
Lucretia Freeman-Buster, the county’s chief of business development, said that the potential buyer is currently working with the Federal Aviation Administration to answer specific questions, after which time they will be ready to submit a letter of intent to acquire the airport.
The announcement was prompted by a question to Brown from Commissioner Bobby Rucci (D), who asked whether he thought that a proposal for setting aside the 258-acre Indian Head Science and Technology Park land parcel as a conservation easement was a good idea.
“As you set policy, our objective is to stay within the four corners of the policy to execute on it,” Brown said. “I don’t think it is appropriate for me to second-guess that or question that.”
However, Brown did offer that an overlay zone, as proposed by Commissioner Ken Robinson (D) in June, as a way to allow properties around the airport to be developed for limited commercial uses while still adhering to environmental restrictions and “leaves open the door” for future opportunities for business development around the airport that a conservation easement would prohibit.
Commissioner Debra Davis (D) pressed the issue, noting that the economic development department’s five-year strategic plan supported the Maryland Airport as a “key driver of future economic development.”
“Would or would not placing the land adjacent to the Maryland Airport into perpetual easement hurt or help the opportunities pertaining to the successful operation of the airport?” she asked.
“Answer the question,” Davis jokingly demanded of Brown as he paused to form his reply.
“I believe that if we bring to this board a legitimate, viable financially capable business ... who is interested in the airport, I think that that ... this board will need to really consider how to use the overlay zone going forward,” Brown replied.
Commissioner’s President Peter F. Murphy (D) noted that the conservation easement and the overlay zone apply to different properties. Urged by Davis to clarify that distinction, Brown said that he would consult with his staff and report back to the commissioners.
“I would like you to get back to the full board and the community because I think we all need to understand that,” Davis said.
In October, the commissioners in a 3-2 vote authorized county planning director Steven Kaii-Ziegler to prepare a proposal for setting aside the 258-acre Indian Head Science and Technology Park land parcel as a conservation easement. At Tuesday’s open session, Kaii-Ziegler reported that he hoped to have a final draft ready for the commissioners to review in late January.
Appeals procedures, solar energy discussed
Also on Tuesday, the commissioners voted unanimously to table until the end of February further discussion of proposed legislation that would change the county’s zoning ordinances that govern the process of appealing to the county’s Board of Appeals.
The proposed legislation would in many cases limit the types of evidence the Board of Appeals can consider to documentation that had previously been entered into the record of a decision being appealed.
Currently, the Board of Appeals allows complainants to submit new evidence for consideration by the board, a process called a “de novo” appeal.
Advocates of the de novo approach point out that two of the three types of cases that the Board of Appeals hears — special exceptions and variance requests — require de novo evidence by definition, since such cases have not been heard previously by another body. They are concerned that a strict interpretation of the new legislation could effectively shut out such cases.
The proposed legislation also includes changes to the language that opponents fear could cause confusion as to who could file an appeal.
Board of Appeals Chairman Brendan Moon has stated publicly that he opposes the proposed changes.
Solar energy was also a topic of discussion at Tuesday’s open session, the last meeting of the year. Murphy said that Charles County had just learned that the Maryland Energy Administration had awarded a grant of up to $200,000 to the county to acquire two electric car charging stations as part of the now-stalled project to install solar canopies at the county government facility in La Plata.
Construction of the canopies, which would be undertaken by Tesla Energy, is currently awaiting review by the La Plata Planning Commission.
“Unfortunately we won’t be able to take advantage, at this point anyway, of this grant,” Murphy said.
Shortly after Murphy’s announcement, the commissioners voted unanimously to approve a resolution in support of the state’s efforts to strengthen its renewable energy portfolio by requiring the state to transition at least 50 percent of its electrical energy to clean and renewable sources by 2030 and to 100 percent by 2035.
The county’s own 2016 comprehensive plan calls for the increased use of clean and renewable energy sources and reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.
Business development update
Freeman-Buster and agriculture business development manager Martin Proulx briefed the commissioners on recent county business outreach and development initiatives including promoting the farming of specialty crops to support the craft beverage industry and the dispensing, processing and cultivation of medical cannabis.
The county is launching a systematic program to help retain and expand businesses in the county. Freeman-Buster explained that the program’s first step will be a comprehensive survey of county businesses.
“Our goal is to put us in [touch with] smaller companies or businesses within the county,” Freeman-Buster explained.
The program will also feature a “mini-MBA program” to help local business owners improve their management training and knowledge.
Proulx explained that the biggest challenges for the county’s farmers today is access to land and capital.
The economic development department is working with the county’s planning and growth management department to prepare a zoning text amendment that would create a “stable and inviting environment” for craft brewers, distillers and vintners looking to launch in Charles County.
Proulx noted that a recent startup seminar at Blue Dyer Distilling Co. in Waldorf had 30 attendees, which illustrated the strong interest in the county for craft beverages.
With regard to the new medical cannabis industry, the county is home to three dispensaries and two processors, and Proulx said that he is aware of at least two other businesses that would be interested in opening should another round of licenses be approved.
During Tuesday’s marathon open session, which ran most of the afternoon, the county commissioners also addressed several proposals for legislation to be considered during the 2018 Maryland General Assembly session in Annapolis. The commissioners:
• Asked the county sheriff’s office to clarify terminology in its proposal to increase room-and-board charges for detention center inmates engaged in its work-release program;
• Decided to forward two pieces of proposed legislation to the county’s General Assembly delegation related to increasing the cigarette retailer license fee and raising the salaries of orphans’ court judges;
• Approved public hearings in January for proposed legislation on approving collective bargaining rights for the county’s emergency medical services staff and a code change for commercial tanning salons; and
• Tabled a proposed code change related to the installation of risers in septic systems until more information can be obtained.
CORRECTION: This article has been updated to correct the number of medical cannabis dispensaries and processors in Charles County. There are currently no medical cannabis growers.