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Efforts to Control Suburban Sprawl Spark Fierce Backlash in Southern Maryland

Candice KellyClean 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).

MattawomanKrista Schlyer“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.”

MattawomanheronCounty 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.

Bonnie Bick“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)


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Thank you for caring and covering the smart growth struggle that is going on in Charles County.
We are fortunate that we have Mattawoman, Zakiah and Nanjemoy Creeks and so much forest and wetland left to protect.

This battle with BGI, the development community with the call for "business as usual", is so harsh and extreme that it is encouraging more citizens to wake up to the reality that they have a choice. Do they want to keeping paying for unwanted, out of control growth and the needed infrastructure to support sprawl or do they want to support smarter growth? The potential for Charles County to move toward real walkable transit oriented communities in Waldorf is promising and will bring Charles onto the 21 C.
The Watershed Implication Plan or Bay Diet also makes it clear that "business as usual"
is not good for the environment or for the economy. Smart Growth presents a welcome choice.

Thanks for your news coverage Tom, we really appreciate it.

Yes, developers are angry and are fighting back.

However, Commissioner President Kelly appears to have the solid political support of angry parents -- they are angry that their children must attend overcrowded public schools because of the "business as usual/sprawl development" policies of some of our elected/government officials (Commissioners Reuben Collins, Debra Davis and Bobby Rucci would fall into this "developer love" camp).

There are many more angry parents than angry developers in Charles County, so the next election will likely bring more change.

Thanks for that political insight! Certainly, the people who are hurt by sprawl -- by its traffic congestion, overcrowded schools, ugly landscape and pollution -- far outnumber the few insiders who make money from these development deals.

It's all a question of who turns out to vote.

How can they vote to strip her power? What did she do? How are their actions not a crime? This is so over-the-top it's ridiculous!

Great article! Chuck great to see that you are still active!
Here we have a perfect example of the "growth machine", pouring money and energy into building infrastructure to boost future growth. From the book "Better Not Bigger" (published in 1999) Members of the "growth is good" groups tend to be wealthy, organized and politically influential. Real estate developers, mortgage bankers, realtors, construction companies, and contractors,pavers,cement, sand companies, and building suppliers.
This is based on the simplistic notion that growth will increase their business volume and they will become even more prosperous.
They conspire to increase profits at the expense of the neighborhoods, quiet beauty and environment of average families who live there!

The Board of Commissioners have actually most recently voted to restore some of her powers -- I continue to believe that these attacks on Kelly have backfired politically and have actually helped her gain more visibility and support in the county.

It's also provided an easier way for primary Democratic voters to sort out and identify which Commissioners are in the back-pocket of developers and which ones are on the side of the citizens.

And keep in mind, we're talking Charles County here ... we don't have a Washington Post or Baltimore Sun to shine a light on these kinds of stories ... social media is filling the void.

You can also listen online to a WYPR (88.1 FM in Baltimore) public radio program on this subject by going to the following web address and clicking on "play."

Kudos to Commissioner Candace Kelly in her fight to preserve wetlands and contain sprawl. Continue to fight the good fight. As a resident of St. Mary's County, next door, I see relentless pressure to approve more subdivisions and side with the developers. It makes no sense, and it is bad for the long therm health of the Bay and its tributaries. It is apparent that bold environmental leadership is fraught with political risk, so I hope that the citizens of Charles County are appreciative of the high cost of doing the right thing. We can learn a thing or two from Commissioner Kelly's example. Having been raised in Montgomery County, and seeing what a total debacle that has become, I hope that we can learn, and embrace smart growth. -Ted Turner, Hollywood, MD

I couldn’t help linking Mattawoman as one of Bay’s most fertile fish breeding grounds, with commissioner-president Candice Quinn Kelly’s quote about there being many scientific reasons to conserve land. A new report by a Task Force of state, federal, and academic agencies underscores the scientific case that “land conservation is fish conservation.” The report was specifically intended to help Charles County better protect Mattawoman as the county revises its Comprehensive Plan. (Download the large report here:

The Task Force “outlines the scientific basis for concluding” that business as usual “virtually assures continuing and dramatic watershed ecosystem deterioration” of Mattawoman Creek.

Because Mattawoman is passing the 10% threshold of impervious service, with a steeply declining estuarine fish community, the Task Force admonishes that “the current update of the Comprehensive Plan may well represent the last opportunity the County will have to establish permanent protection of the Mattawoman’s resources and ecological functions.”

The Task Force lists dozens of steps that the county could take to protect one of the Bay’s finest. But these are being pointedly ignored by a majority on the Charles County Planning Commission, who were appointed by the previous Board of Commissioners and are allies of the so-called Balanced Growth Initiative pro-development lobby. (The appointed Planning Commission is responsible for revising the comp plan, and is effectively independent of the elected Board of Commissioners, on which Candice Quinn Kelly serves as president.)

In the past, when science was mentioned, the commissioner presidents’ eyes would glaze over. It is refreshing to have Kelly as president, who is thoughtful, forward looking, and respects facts. But when facts show that sustainability requires a smarter-growth vision, the big money accustomed to paving the landscape uses their profits to fight progressive and needed changes.

Tom you are the best!! I remember the article you wrote about the Cross County Connector extension a few years ago that was enormously informative!!

I believe Commissioner Kelly and to a lesser degree, Commissioner Robinson are being vilified because they reject "business as usual". The developers had free rein in Charles County for decades and now that they've lost a lot of influence, power and control, they have decided to attack these two outstanding Commissioners.

All their money and influence will not work... and we see that now with angry parents whose children are being forced to relocate to other schools because of overcrowding.

This overcrowding has been caused by very poor "planning" in the past, much of that "planning" having been approved by PREVIOUS Planning Commission members and County Commissioners who were favorable to the developers.

Add in the approximately 28,000 new homes that may be built over the next few years, a dwindling water supply, more traffic, more school overcrowding, and more polluted waterways - the future looks bleak, HOWEVER there are three members of the Planning Commission and two County Commissioners (Kelly and Robinson) who CARE about the future of the county and will not be persuaded by the likes of BGI and others whose only objective is to increase their own personal "bottom line" regardless of the consequences and who gets hurt in the process.

Thanks, Cheryl! The good of the few who want to make quick cash by transforming the woods and wetlands of beautiful Southern Maryland into generic cul-de-sacs should not trump the good of the majority of voters who want adequate schools, uplifting scenery, plentiful drinking water, fishable streams, and functioning roads.

In my view, it's not "planning" at all to designate the entire northern part of Charles County as a growth area. That's the area, closest to the Washington DC metro area, that the developers themselves would circle with a magic marker and say "yep, give me all of that!" because that's where the suburban sprawl naturally wants to creep.

Planning would be to put some of these areas off limits to subdivisions, so that the county's attractiveness and quality of life and the natural water filters are preserved.

Always watch out when developers and bankers start talking about "Balance". This translates into "I want half of anything that I don't have already, to achieve balance." Of course, as the scenario plays out again and again, ad infinitum, soon enough there are hardly any trees or clean water left. Sprawl costs us all, except a few come away with all the profits. Thanks to Candice and Ken!

The water supply will soon be the arbiter of development "plans"...

Charles County Commissioner Candice Kelly is wonderfully progressive - trying to turn our county toward true Smart Growth, health, and prosperity for ALL citizens. As far as BGI's opposition, and their desperate attempt to hold Charles County back in the 1900's by continuing the killer sprawl that made them rich, only willfull ignorance or toxic greed could make people so stupidly unaware. Ignorance will NOT be bliss.

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