The following originally appeared on the Chesapeake Notebook Bay Journal Blog last week.
Eight Maryland cabinet secretaries have sent a sharply worded letter to Charles County Commissioners, criticizing their comprehensive plan and urging the county to change course and conserve its natural lands.
It's the first time the secretaries have written such a letter in Maryland, where state agencies largely serve in an advisory role when it comes to planning decisions.
The secretaries, who are part of the Maryland Smart Growth Subcabinet, say the county's draft plan is "contrary to longstanding smart planning" and "largely ignores the county's wealth of natural resources," which include forests, farmland and various tributaries of the Potomac River, including Zekiah Swamp and Mattawoman Creek. The creek is one of the state's most productive nurseries for fish and plants.
You can read their letter here.
The county's draft plan changes 150,000 acres from conservation to residential use. Some farmers may be happy with that scenario because it will allow them to subdivide land and sell it to developers. But planners, environmentalists and conservationists decry the change, saying that such dense development will ruin the remaining resources and further fragment the county.
"It became more and more clear that the Planning Commission was going forward with a flawed plan, one that is the biggest rollback we've ever seen," said Maryland Planning Secretary Richard Hall.
Dru-Schmidt Perkins, the longtime executive director of the group 1,000 Friends of Maryland, called the plan "outrageous." She agreed that, in her nearly two decades with the agency, she'd never seen that kind of rollback before.
According to Schmidt-Perkins and 1,000 Friends' Kimberly Brandt, the rollback began when a group of property owners in the western part of the county hired Murray Levy, a former state delegate and commissioner, as their lobbyist. The property owners--some of them speculators--want to increase their land's value. Levy knows his way around the county, and was "very influential" in crafting the plan, according to Hall and others familiar with the plan.
Their group is called the Balanced Growth Initiative. According to their website, they're trying to balance property rights with environmental stewardship.
Educating the people of Charles County about these possible changes in their future has been difficult, Hall and Schmidt-Perkins say. Many county workers commute to D.C. The newspaper that is devoted to the county, the Maryland Independent, only publishes twice a week. It has dutifully covered the hearings and meetings, but it's been hard to see if people in the county care deeply about the possible changes. But 1,000 Friends surveys have shown people there do care deeply about the county's natural resources, and do use them--visiting Mattawoman, Nanjemoy and other county gems on the weekends. Indeed, Hall said, it's the reason many people choose to live in Charles County.
It's rare for state agencies to weigh in with criticism on a county's growth plan. But it's not the first time it’s happened in Charles County. Two years ago, the county was in the throes of trying to build a road--the Cross-County Connector--that would have impacted Mattawoman Creek and Chapman Forest. The Maryland Department of the Environment, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and the Army Corps of Engineers all opposed the project; eventually, the Corps denied the permit, which killed the road. But the county can bring it back if it provides the money necessary to conduct environmental studies, and it has now vowed to do so.
Other counties in the fast-growing corridors near Washington have taken different approaches. As Tom Horton recently reported in the Bay Journal, Calvert County--right next door--has put a cap on development and instituted a transfer-development-rights program that has been successful at keeping sprawl to a minimum. Montgomery County has six times as many people as Charles, yet it manages to keep a third of its land in resource conservation.
Many residents also have been unhappy with Charles County's plan, which Hall says was not written by professional planners with the county. According to the Maryland Independent, at a planning commission meeting, where the plan was approved, Indian Head resident Ed Joell summed up his feelings thusly:
"This process was transparent in that we could all watch it happen, but it was like watching an accident that you couldn't stop," he said. "In my experience, I've never seen a government commission less open and less concerned with the affairs of people . . . In my opinion, no nonelected body should be given the ability to make crucial decisions that will impact all the people in the county from now until far into the future. The comprehensive plan should have been left in the hands of professionals . . . with approval from the county board of commissioners.”
Smart Growth Alliance for Charles County, 1,000 Friends of Maryland and Mattawoman Watershed Society have also been active opponents of the plan.
As for what the state can do about a plan they abhor, Hall said there are some options. Charles County wants state money for transit-oriented development in Waldorf. It may find those funds going elsewhere. Same goes for road funding or other assistance. But, Hall stressed, the state is still hoping to work with Charles officials to amend the plan and save the county's green spaces and rural character.
There is still a chance for those who oppose the plan to make their voices heard. On Tuesday, Oct. 29, at 7 p.m., the commissioners will hold a hearing. Sign-in for verbal comment begins at 5:30 p.m. For more information, call Amy Blessinger at 301/645-0650 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.