After decades of effort, the voluntary, collaborative approach to restoring the health and vitality of the Chesapeake Bay— the largest estuary in the United States—has not worked and, in fact, is failing. A diverse group of 57 senior scientists and policymakers have joined forces to save the Bay. This is our plan.

The 2012 Draft Comprehensive Plan for Charles County: What You Get When the Developers Write Your Plan

Historically, land use decisions have been left up to local governments. While the State has tried to influence these decisions via various policy statements regarding smart growth, local autonomy has rarely been challenged and the laws implementing State policy generally have no “teeth.” Clearly, sprawl development has not been significantly curbed by these policies relying on voluntary compliance and recent legislation has reflected a trend to add at least the threat of a “stick” to the lure of a “carrot.”

SB236, The Sustainable Growth and Agricultural Preservation Act of 2012, encourages development supported by public sewer systems as opposed to sprawl development on septic systems. On the surface, this looked like a “win-win” piece of legislation that limits where septic systems can be used as a way to promote smart growth with a strong Chesapeake Bay cleanup component. The legislative provisions were implemented via “shall” statements to more forcefully push local government toward smart growth policies that concurrently reduce the associated growth costs born by the taxpayers and threats to the environment. However, some counties have revolted against the State’s threat to their autonomy and decided to test the State’s resolve to use the “stick.” Charles County seems poised to join the ranks of Frederick, Cecil and others who don’t have a problem with new development costs being born by the taxpayers and the water being too dirty for their children to play in.

Normally, there is some give and take between smart-growth advocates and the development community during the comprehensive land-use planning process. However, the 2012 Draft Comprehensive Plan for Charles County (The Plan) was essentially written by the development community to the exclusion of smart-growth policies, and without directives and goals based on serving the broader public’s interest. The process was permeated by the insistence of a majority of the Planning Commission (PC) that zoning density is a property right and downzoning is a “taking” of rights – a conclusion that is not supported by legal precedence, court decisions or the history and application of local zoning ordinances throughout this nation.

Therefore, any attempt to limit development anywhere in the County was automatically opposed with no regard for the obvious and well-documented potential environmental, quality-of-life, and fiscal consequences. Ultimately, this “takings” argument has set the course for a new land-use vision that will burden taxpayers with the cost of sprawl, cause further environmental degradation, and destroy resources that have public-health, ecological and economic value.

This Property-rights hysteria has led to clear violations of State policy as implemented in Maryland statutes. The development forces took complete control of the process via their sympathizers on the PC who willingly ignored and even actively conspired to circumvent State laws. The PC majority blindly embraced a tiers map developed in secret by a pro-development lobby made up of realtors, developers and farmers/speculators. Instead of complying with either the spirit or letter of SB236, the developer map ignored clear policy goals and statute text aimed at limiting septics in sensitive areas. In an attempt to circumvent the text of the Bill, the PC voted to change the zoning of over half the County to remove the word “Conservation” from the zoning classifications. There was no planned comprehensive rezoning and no assertion of a mistake or change in neighborhood as required by the Land Use Article in State Statutes. The majority of the PC just “spot-zoned” all the areas where they wanted to increase development on septics in total disregard for the law.

Apparent loop holes in the text of the Bill were exploited to increase the size of all minor subdivisions on septics from five to seven lots and also allow residue parcels to be treated as new subdivisions so some existing minor subdivisions can be expanded to 12 lots. Adequate Public Facilities mitigation is much less of a burden for minor subdivisions than for major subdivisions. Therefore, minor subdivisions are more of a burden to the taxpayers but better for the builders’ bottom lines.

The apparent corruption of sound growth and development concepts has also infected the Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) who didn’t have to endorse the PC’s biased anti-environment agenda. However, recent actions by the BOCC indicate that the development lobby has succeeded in seizing control of at least three of the five Commissioners who are willing to rubber-stamp the irresponsible decisions of the rogue Planning Commission.

Given that the state has established that the public has a right to witness the iterative process of zoning and comprehensive planning, it is critical to note that the public was not privy to details surrounding how this tiers map was developed. It was created by a private company, under the direction of a pro-development faction, and the public did not have access to the decision-making regarding what parameters were used to devise and establish the four tiers.

It remains to be seen if the political will to protect, preserve or conserve anything exists at the BOCC level.  However, it seems clear that the laws have enough “teeth” to hold Charles County accountable for The Plan and the tiers map, under review by various agencies. That the laws have been violated is not debatable; the violations are obvious and only the capability and commitment to enforce them are in question. It seems likely that Charles County will join the ranks of other counties thumbing their noses at state policies and that enforcing these policies and the laws that are being broken will fall to either the State or to coalitions of private organizations with limited legal assets.

It also seems that this type of behavior on the part of the PC majority should qualify for disciplinary action against them. According to The Land Use Article, the BOCC has the authority to remove Planning Commissioners for malfeasance. Most oaths of office include promises to honor laws and uphold the public trust, neither of which has been done in this case. However, the BOCC has not taken such action and the political will to do the right thing may not be strong enough – especially since their majority seems to mirror the same contempt for state law and the majority of Charles County citizens as does the PC. However, it should not be assumed that the residents of Charles County are unwilling to seek judicial remedies against those officials who ignore our laws and abuse the public trust. The PC-approved tiers map and comprehensive plan both fail Charles County, its citizens, and the Chesapeake Bay.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

4 Responses to The 2012 Draft Comprehensive Plan for Charles County: What You Get When the Developers Write Your Plan

  1. Nick Williams says:

    Perhaps supporters of The Sustainable Growth and Agricultural Preservation Act of 2012 could consult the Chesapeake Legal Alliance and begin preparing the legal case.
    Does the Act provide any consequences for local government noncompliance? Many MD Smart Growth laws have no teeth in this regard.

  2. Cheryl Thomas says:

    If the Charles County commissioners vote to approve this development plan, the MDP will likely reject it and return it for revision. The developers were unable to achieve their objective for the Cross County Connector, many of whom were invested in future development along this “development corridor”. When the ACOE rejected this extension their only other alternative was to submit their own Tier Map and Comprehensive Plan revisions – all of which would enable more development along the western peninsula waterfront areas. The fly in the ointment is the groundwater supply which the the MGS has warned that by 2030 Charles County could experience shortages of this precious resource – shortages that are a direct result of demand outpacing supply – in other words: overdevelopment. Unfortunately as long as MDE continues to approve and issue Water Appropriation and Use Permits for withdrawals exceeding 10,000 gallons per day, groundwater supplies will continue to remain in jeopardy.

  3. I guess my question would be, why weren’t environmental advocates in the room when the draft was assembled? Were in they in the room when it was publicly discussed, even? Several watershed groups and two Riverkeepers operate in the County. Case in point – this blog article was posted five weeks after the last (or only) public hearing on the plan revision. This blog article was posted three weeks after the public comment period ended. This “Action Plan Group” purports to be assembled of the finest, most forward-thinking minds in the environmental community…wouldn’t it have been more impactful to report on this process DURING the public input period? How would anyone outside of Charles County even have heard of this information? And sadly, how many people in Charles County actually know it’s happening?

    I feel like, as has been the trend in this blog over the years, the focus is once again to bemoan the (admittedly ignorant) processes at work, instead of to advocate a framework for actually changing it. Writers on this blog have made a career out of complaining about the status quo, only to learn that the criminals, do-nothings, and bureaucrats simply don’t care if they are embarrassed by your writing. They have no shame.

    So instead of these continual floggings of issues that have already died and been buried to our mutual dissatisfaction, you “Senior Leaders of the Bay” propose a way forward that will allow change to occur at more levels than simply, “Hopefully there will be a lawsuit.”

    • KenHastings says:

      The actions by the Planning Commission are not offical until the Board of County Commissioners vote to approve them. For both the Draft Comprehensive Plan and the Tiers Maps, the BOCC have yet to approve anything except the subdivsion regulations changes. The citizens have kept the pressure on at the State and local levels but the game isn’t over yet and some critical battles are currently being fought that make this discussion especially timely.
      1. The legislature is still digesting the report by MDP on the implementation of SB236 (2012).
      2. Bills to repeal SB236 have been filed in both houses of the General Assembly and are being debated now.
      3. Various parties are evaluating their options for judical remedies given that State policies are not generally enforced by the State when it comes to land use.

      If ever there was a good time for this debate, this is it and there is a lot more at stake than just Comp. Plans and Tiers Maps. If the legislature isn’t willing to pass laws with teeth in them, they might as well stop trying to influence State policies on anything. Can you think of a better time for a discussion of legislative imperatives than during the legislative session? What better venue can I find than websites like this one?

      I do agree that we need change and what we have been doing hasn’t worked. I share your frustration with the legacy of irresponsible land use policies we have all endured and I don’t have a magic bullet to force changes.

      Just playing the hand I have been dealt and hoping for better cards next time.

      Ken Hastings