CHARLES COUNTY – To accommodate a rising population and a growing job market, Charles County, home to some of Maryland’s richest areas for natural resources, is considering a proposal that would allow more residential development throughout the county.
But state and federal officials oppose the plan, saying it will create too much sprawl, putting at risk one of the state’s most biodiverse freshwater streams in Maryland, Mattawoman Creek, and other watersheds that affect the Chesapeake Bay.
The public will have a chance to comment at a Planning Commission public hearing Monday. It will then go before the Board of County Commissioners for a vote.
The Planning Commission drew up the plan with input from county and state officials, but some felt their suggestions were not included.
“We understand they have authority when it comes to local land use decision-making and the state does not,” said Tony Redman, a regional planner for the Department of Natural Resources. “But we do care about the resources in the county.”
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service echoed that sentiment in a letter to the county, saying the plan promotes residential sprawl and is less protective of the environment than alternative plans.
“It would have negative impacts on fish and wildlife resources in Charles County and also in the Potomac River and ultimately the Chesapeake Bay,” said Dan Murphy, chief of U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s division of habitat conservation.
The Maryland Department of Planning agreed, explaining in its letter to the county that the plan was a step back from environmental protection and did not address the fiscal and infrastructure impacts of highly dispersed development.
“If adopted, these changes would be the most drastic policy reversal in a comprehensive plan this agency has ever seen,” said Peter Conrad, director of local planning for the Maryland Department of Planning, in a letter to the county.
But Peter Aluotto, Planning and Growth Management director for the county, said they are already doing their part to help the environment with watershed improvement plans and preservation lands, and there is a need to balance those with economic concerns.
“We have a significant proportion of our county that we feel is protected,” Aluotto said. “Can we do more? I suppose we could do more. But everything is a tradeoff.”
The more land you preserve, the less opportunity you have for development and jobs that people want also, Aluotto said. And if you go too far in the other direction, you destroy those qualities people like in the first place.
“There’s got to be a balancing point,” he said.
Tension between state and local government is nothing new, he said. It happens everywhere.
The county expects to see a 34 percent rise in employment over the next 30 years, largely because of its proximity to Washington and its strong military presence, according to the development plan.
The last 50 years have also seen a shift from agricultural and seafood industries to retail and commercial services.
But not everybody in the county agrees with the plan drawn up by the planning commission.
They’ve gone too far, said Board of County Commissioners President Candice Quinn Kelly, who will vote along with four others on whether to keep the plan.
She called it a step backward and said she could not vote for it.
“I am terribly embarrassed by it,” she said.
In addition to creating residential sprawl, it allows one house for every three acres on land that Kelly and the Maryland Department of Planning said should be designated as sensitive, according to the Sustainable Growth and Agricultural Preservation Act of 2012.
What they argued should be designated as Tier IV land, which is sensitive and prohibits residential subdivisions, is designated by the Planning Commission as Tier III land, which is planned for large lot and rural development.
The planning commission’s tier map has not been approved by the Board of County Commissioners. Kelly said they might be waiting to vote on the tier map and the development plans at the same time.
Residential development is the most expensive for the county, Kelly said.
County Commissioner Ken Robinson agreed with Kelly’s sentiment.
“Environmentally, it’s a nightmare,” he said. “But in addition to that, it doesn’t take into account infrastructure that would need to be built based on this plan. It doesn’t take into account building and school overcrowding that already exists.”
Robinson said he hoped the Board of County Commissioners could amend the plan significantly before voting.
The three other county commissioners who will ultimately decide on the development plan could not be reached for comment despite several attempts.