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On Mattawoman Creek, Old Habits Die Hard

Schlyer-cbr-9506Recreational fishermen try their luck on Mattawoman Creek. By Krista Schlyer/iLCP. 

It might come as a surprise that one of the mid-Atlantic's healthiest rivers lies less than 20 miles from the Nation's Capital. Mattawoman Creek, situated squarely in the middle of the fourth largest metro area in the U.S., still supports a world-class bass fishery and ranks 8th out of 137 on Maryland's list of most productive freshwater rivers. Some stretches of the creek are even entered on Maryland's dwindling list of highest quality (Tier 2) waters, which support a diverse assemblage of aquatic species, rare plants, and forest interior dwelling birds. 

It turns out that is what's possible when a mostly forested watershed is left intact.

The trouble is, it might not be forested much longer. Over the years, some Charles County leaders have drawn up plans to supplant about 9,000 acres of mostly wooded land with sprawling lawns and cul-de-sacs. In the end, such plans would drive a massive increase in impervious surface that state and federal agencies like Maryland's Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have said could devastate the creek.

Growth has to go somewhere, proponents of this super-sized development district argue. And it's true that failing to plan properly for growth can lead to all kinds of problems. But that is precisely why citizens across the county were shocked to see three years of hard work and consensus-building tossed aside: A rational plan to focus growth around existing communities, recommended by planning staff, was rejected by the county's Planning Commission in favor of an old-school sprawling proposal drawn up outside the public process by a lobbying group favoring development interests. 

This latter proposal earmarked far more land for development than the county says it needs, echoing outdated and oversized growth area boundaries from the housing bubbles of past decades. It also resurrected the Cross County Connector, a proposed road that landed Mattawoman Creek on American Rivers Most Endangered List in 2009 (in a major victory for clean water, permits for that roadway were denied by the Corps in 2012).

Through the tireless efforts of thousands of county residents, many of that lobbying group's proposals were rolled back by a unanimous County Commissioner vote April 29--a welcome change from a three-member majority that had consistently voted against stronger protections for Mattawoman Creek. 

We hope that vote sticks. Just a few weeks later, those same three commissioners were talking about spending $1 million in county funds to study options for reviving the Cross County Connector.

The bottom line is this: The commissioners need to take Mattawoman Creek out of their long-range plans for future growth. Because whether the sprawling growth strategy currently in place is driven by developer interests, or inertia, or even good intentions, the result will doom Mattawoman Creek to the same tragic condition as many other rivers in urbanized America. Charles County--and every one of our rivers--deserves better.

—Erik Fisher, CBF's Maryland Land Use Planner

Click here to take action to protect the lands, waters, and quality of life in Charles County!


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