Charles County Comprehensive Plan Has Historic Potential
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by Bonnie Bick |
What a difference a handful of votes can make. By slim margins, two progressive candidatesone for the Charles County Board of Commissioners and one for its presidentedged out two incumbents in the 2010 primary election, and went on to win the general election two months later. As a result, Charles Countys flawed Comprehensive Plan, with its development district larger than DC is getting a makeover in full public view, instead of the usual makeup dabbed on in a smoke-filled room.
By Bonnie Bick—What a difference a handful of votes can make. By slim margins, two progressive candidates—one for the Charles County Board of Commissioners and one for its president—edged out two incumbents in the 2010 primary election, and went on to win the general election two months later. As a result, Charles County’s flawed Comprehensive Plan, with its “development district” larger than DC is getting a makeover in full public view, instead of the usual makeup dabbed on in a smoke-filled room.
In Maryland, counties and municipalities develop land-use plans under authority conferred by the state’s “Article 66B.” Called comprehensive plans, or master plans, these documents provide a blueprint for urban, residential, and conservation areas that are later implemented with zoning regulations. The plans comprise maps and about a dozen chapters, or “elements” that must address topics ranging from transportation to sensitive areas. While written with a horizon decades away, these plans must be reviewed every six years, and updated if necessary. Elected officials can give broad initial guidance and have the final say, but the “comp plan” is assembled by a standing “planning commission,” county planning staff, and hired consultants if necessary.
Because land-use is the determining factor in promoting healthy communities and preserving our natural and cultural heritage, comprehensive plans acquire critical importance in rapidly growing counties which often have the greatest to lose in terms of natural resources.
By relative measure, Charles is the second-fastest growing county in the state. In the past, its unabashedly pro-sprawl policies have earned it dubious honors, like teaching the greatest number of school children in trailers, and losing forest at one of the fastest rates in the state. Tragically, these policies have also turned one of the best tributaries in the Bay, Mattawoman Creek, into one declining alarmingly as impervious surface and forest loss join in the one-two punch fatal to our waterways. Hence it was welcome news that Charles County would conduct a major revamping of its comp plan.
The revision process was designed to occur transparently and with unusual public outreach. After a kick-off public meeting and a publicly open “marketplace forum” treating the economics of land use, four visioning-sessions and four subsequent “design charettes” were held around the county to elicit public input. The local environmental community, as well as members of the Smarter Growth Alliance for Charles County (SGACC), including the Sierra Club, participated actively in these events.
Land Use Scenarios
Three land-use scenarios were devised to capture the broad range of public opinion. These were then condensed to two and presented to the public at an open house on October 19. It was here that lingering concerns over the consultants assisting the county surfaced. The train that had been running smoothly veered toward a wreck, as the two scenarios were needlessly, and inaccurately, portrayed as the environment versus the economy.
Scenario 1 differs dramatically from past visions. While not perfect, it fully protects stream valleys, maps a full priority preservation area, and focuses growth in existing urban centers (but with an ill-advised expansion of Indian Head that would harm Mattawoman and that would curtail leveraging its small-town charm to become a tourism destination). Because it embodies smart growth principles, it affords the best chance to support rail transit to Waldorf, the major urban core, to curtail sprawl, and to foster a successful TDR (Transferred Development Rights) program in which developers gain increased building densities by compensating rural landowners for preserving their land.
In contrast, Scenario 2 simply rearranges business as usual. It maintains plans to urbanize the environmentally and historically rich western county, includes the Cross County Connector, penetrates rural areas with “villages,” some not so small, and shouts inattention to Mattawoman.
The consultants scored the scenarios on criteria of their choosing. Scenario 1 ranked only incrementally better on environmental criteria, while Scenario 2 fared much better on economic and social criteria that were often contrived, narrowly focused, and in many cases, evaluated counter to what is known about smart growth implementations and studies. Excellent reviews of the scenarios by SGACC and the Coalition for Smarter Growth, that would be helpful to many communities in Maryland, are online at smartgrowthcharlescounty.org.
Water Resources Element
A glaring problem with the consultant’s evaluation is the inadequate use of the Water Resources Element (WRE), an important new chapter mandated for all comp plans. One component of the WRE examines the impact of land use on water quality. A succinct outline of this component is on the chapter website at www.maryland.sierraclub.org/uploads/WRE message for web reduced size.pdf.
State guidelines would have the WRE embedded early in the revision process so that land-use plans could be iterated until they met pollution targets. According to state guidelines, the WRE should provide “a sound foundation to implement Smart Growth throughout the state.” Reneging on earlier promises, the comp-plan consultants paid lip service to the spirit of the WRE, and failed to address a computed increase in pollution loads for both scenarios, even as the county must decrease its loads under the Watershed Implementation Plan.
The consultants will offer a single “preferred scenario” for Charles County’s comp plan at a December 15 open house. At the time of writing, the many statewide and local organizations and citizens are on edge, wondering if our environment will be given a long overdue gift of smart growth for the season, or a lump of coal. n
Bonnie Bick is the Southern Maryland Group Political Chair.
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