Clean water activists won a major victory recently when they defeated a highway project in southern Maryland that would have brought sprawling development to the wetlands and forests around Mattawoman Creek, one of the most fertile fish breeding grounds in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
But efforts to stop sprawl in Charles County also triggered a payback from the development lobby, whose allies on the county commission voted on April 10 to strip power from conservation-minded Commission President Candice Quinn Kelly (above).
“There has been considerable backlash. It’s been very, very difficult,” said Kelly, a champion of well-planned growth. She was targeted with political attacks because she endorsed a state bill to control sprawl, and supported a proposed local zoning law that would have protected more farmland and rural areas from development.
“I've taken quite a bit of heat," Kelly said during a recent interview in her office. "Nevertheless, I have signed up for this, and I’m going to do my best to serve our citizens.... We cannot develop every square inch of this county. We must maintain and retain agricultural and forest lands. And there are many, many scientific reasons for doing this, not the least of which is to protect the Bay.”
County Commissioner Ken Robinson said that Kelly deserves praise for working to update the county’s land-use plan and trying to create zoning that protects more rural landscpe through a designation called "priority preservation areas."
“Those who represent development interests have made it very clear that they are not happy with Commissioner Kelly, and to a lesser extent me,” Robinson said. “It’s unfortunate. I think all of us who live in Charles County in our hearts want what’s best for the county.”
Local activists, backed by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and other environmental organizations, were up against difficult odds in their struggle to stop a highway called the Cross County Connector, which would have added runoff pollution to the already-fragile Mattawoman Creek.
For years, opponents of the $50 million road faced off against the Charles County government, the local Chamber of Commerce, and developers who planned to build sprawling subdivisions with thousands of homes around the new road. The project would have required the clear-cutting of 74 acres of forest and the paving of seven acres of wetlands.
Public anger over the high cost of the highway played a role in changing the balance of power on the Charles County Board of Commissioners in November 2010. Voters threw out two incumbents on the five-member board who supported the highway, and replaced them with Robinson, an outspoken environmentalist, and Kelly, who has supported more progressive growth-control policies.
In November 2011, the Maryland Department of the Environment denied a wetlands destruction permit for the highway. It was a rare victory, because the state agency approves these kinds of permits 99.7 percent of the time, according to state figures. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers last month followed up with its own permit denial.
“It was a permit denial that was extremely well received by the citizens of Charles County, who want to protect our natural resources and have a Smart Growth future for Charles County,” said Bonnie Bick (left), a local environmental activist who helped to lead the fight against the highway.
With the defeat of the highway, and new leadership in the county commission proposing limits to suburban sprawl, a development lobbying organization called the Balanced Growth Initiative (BGI) formed in the offices of a local law firm and hatched a campaign to regain power.
Charles McPherson, chief operating officer of the county’s largest construction company, spoke out on behalf of BGI during a March 6 public hearing. He demanded to know why Kelly had endorsed Governor Martin O’Malley’s proposed septic bill, which would control sprawl by limiting large developments with underground waste tanks designed to leak pollution. McPherson also wanted to know why the county was becoming -– in his mind -– less friendly to the rights of property owners and developers.
"It is time to restore order in this county,” the BGI representative asserted. “We’re not going to go away quietly on this.”
And they didn’t. Not long after that meeting, BGI’s allies on the county commission voted to strip president Kelly of her powers.
The result? The new county commission -– which started off so green and public-minded -- has been brought nearly to a halt by political attacks.
Protecting forests, farms, and streams is the right road to take for the region's health. But it is not an easy road, politically. And so we should honor elected officials like Candice Quinn Kelly who stand up against powerful interests for the good of the Chesapeake Bay.
By Tom Pelton
Chesapeake Bay Foundation
(Photos at top and bottom by author; others by Krista Schlyer)