by Mattawoman Watershed Society |
Thrilling news arrived early in November when the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) denied wetland-destruction permits for Charles Countys proposed Cross County Connector, citing a long-inadequate permit application. The highway would have killed faltering Mattawoman Creek, one of the Chesapeake Bays most productive tributaries, with sprawl development. As a result, the Sierra Club has been a leading voice for protecting Mattawoman, a voice now joined by many others. Efforts gained national attention in 2009, when Mattawomans plight led American Rivers to declare it the nations fourth most endangered river.
Thrilling news arrived early in November when the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) denied wetland-destruction permits for Charles County’s proposed Cross County Connector, citing a long-inadequate permit application. The highway would have killed faltering Mattawoman Creek, one of the Chesapeake Bay’s most productive tributaries, with sprawl development. As a result, the Sierra Club has been a leading voice for protecting Mattawoman, a voice now joined by many others. Efforts gained national attention in 2009, when Mattawoman’s plight led American Rivers to declare it the nation’s fourth most endangered river.
The highway would also have thwarted Smart Growth in a county well situated to lead the state by example. Following the permit denial, the county received a letter from Rich Hall, Secretary of the Maryland Department of Planning, affirming that the highway was antithetical to Smart Growth and would have “adversely affected” Mattawoman.
More good news arrived the following week when the Charles County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously not to appeal MDE’s decision. However, there remains the possibility that, after a board-mandated inter-departmental review aimed at plugging holes in the application, the county could decide to reapply for the permits after only six months. A full review would include a re-evaluation of the highway, and come to the same conclusion as Rich Hall’s. Then the board could initiate more enlightened policies than past administrations, by abandoning a highway aimed at enriching a few land speculators at the expense of all county citizens and their environment.
In denying the permits, MDE cited a number of persistent gaps in information, some dating back seven years. Previous county administrations were simply incapable of seeing the impacts this highway would visit on Mattawoman Creek, including the degradation of a high quality “Tier II” tributary regulated under the Clean Water Act. Similarly, the federal record shows that these previous administrations steadfastly refused to acknowledge any cumulative impacts of the highway when queried repeatedly by the Army Corps of Engineers.
This victory is the result of legitimate concerns raised by a large number of individuals and organizations, and of regulatory agencies paying greater than usual attention—in 2009, MDE denied only 5 of 1,967 permit applications to alter or destroy wetlands. The effort has lasted years. Its origins lay in the Campaign to Save Chapman Forest when the highway—then the “Western Connector”—was concocted to subsidize the defunct Chapman’s Landing mega-development, now Chapman State Park. The Mattawoman Watershed Society and Sierra Club began organizing against the highway in 2006. In 2008, after a boisterous hearing on the proposed alteration of wetlands and waterways, where many hundreds overwhelmingly opposed the highway, over twenty regional, state, and local groups, of which Sierra Club is a key member, coalesced to form the Smarter Growth Alliance for Charles County (SGACC), guided by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. Since then, SGACC has actively opposed the highway while working tirelessly to replace the status quo of sprawl development, epitomized by the proposed highway, with Smart Growth alternatives.
The effort could have far-reaching implications for Smart Growth in Charles County, an apt outcome, given that the purchase of Chapman Forest inspired then-governor Parris Glendening to bring Smart Growth to Maryland. The SGACC’s apolitical forums, advertisements, and mailings helped educate voters to a better vision. Charles County’s new administration has initiated a complete revamping of its comprehensive plan instead of rubber stamping outdated concepts as in the past. Presently, consultants are “merging” two scenarios, one of which contains numerous Smart Growth components. (See article on Charles County Comp Plan update, opposite page.)
A new wetland application for the highway would defy wisdom. Outdated estimates peg the cost of the highway at $47 million—it will much higher—while other pressing projects go unfunded in Charles County. Taxpayers would be asked to subsidize a sprawl highway that would lower their own home values by enabling the construction of more housing units in an already depressed market. It would make meeting water pollution reduction goals in the watershed more expensive and more difficult, if not impossible.
And, applying anew for the highway would telegraph an egregious lack of concern for one the Chesapeake Bay’s best tributaries. When the previous application was made, Mattawoman Creek was heralded as “the best, most productive tributary to the Bay” by state fisheries biologists. These same scientists now find that Mattawoman is suffering, prompting the sobering conclusion that “planned levels of development should be reconsidered in light of the extent of declines detected in the fish community.”
As we await the outcome of Charles County’s decision to reapply or not, many are working for a new comprehensive plan that embraces Smart Growth, and thus abandons subsidizing sprawl development with unneeded highways. In the meantime, the environmental community can stand proud of our efforts readying the coffin for this very bad idea.
This piece was submitted by the Mattawoman Watershed Society.
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