Residents resist new watershed conservation district
Cite stifling of development, lower property values
At the last Charles County Planning Commission meeting on Nov. 14, Commissioners’ Vice President Joan Jones (D) spoke out against the county’s watershed conservation district in the new comprehensive plan adopted earlier this year.
Jones compared the district to “eminent domain” and said the county could potentially be shrinking residents’ property values.
During the commission’s public hearing on the new water- shed conservation district, many agreed with her. More than 50 people were signed up to speak during the meeting with many in opposition of the county’s new- est conservation strategy.
Their message was this: the county did not provide enough notice for citizens, the district needs to be researched more before making any decisions and the county’s property values will shrink if these steps are not taken.
Adam Morman, a project manager and landscape architect with Walton Maryland, a development company, said Charles County is by far the “least transparent and least business-friendly government we’ve ever worked with,” and that is evidenced by the county’s consideration of the watershed conservation district.
Walton works in many different jurisdictions across the state, he said, and had plans for the western portion of Charles County where the watershed conservation district will be situated if ultimately approved.
Property the company owns, Morman said, is within the 1,160 acres the county included in the district that was formerly a state priority funding area. Now the company will be turned away by
the county because of the wa- tershed conservation district — despite being in the Port Tobacco area, he noted.
“There is no nexus between protecting the Mattawoman Creek stream valley and protecting the headwaters of Port Tobacco,” Morman said.
There are almost 9,500 af- fected property owners in the zone, Morman said, that are af- fected just as Walton has been. None received proper notice of their land being “downzoned,” he said.
Property owners of one acre of land are required to send out certified letters of notice to adjacent property owners, Mor- man said, but the county is not showing any of these people that same respect.
“There are 9,500 property owners and you’re not going to notify a single one by certified letter?” Morman asked. “This is absolutely absurd.”
Chino Walters, the pastor of Greater Morning Star Apostolic Church of Waldorf, said his congregation had plans of expanding into the western portion of the county. But this month, he said, he was notified via a Facebook friend that their “hope was in jeopardy.”
“We have members who went into their 401k savings because they had faith in our vision,” Walters said.
The church’s property has already been proposed, he said, but there is a chance it will not be exempt and grandfa- thered in. It must be 25 percent through the preliminary plan or have an existing developer’s rights and responsibilities agreement to be considered.
If there can be no exemption, Walters said, he hopes the county will refund the people for the investments they have put into the project already.
Gil Bauserman, owner of the Maryland Airport which would be located in the district, said the restrictions would limit the air- port’s development and prevent businesses from coming into the western portion of the county.
There are many people in the area, he said, who are retired and looking to make a continued living through a business or through the use of their land, Bauserman said. The conser- vation district would limit that.
“We’re talking about the el- derly. People barely living in this age,” he said. “If you take 2,100 acres off the tax records, who is going to make up the difference?”
Billie Statchura, chairwoman of the board of the Charles County Chamber of Com- merce, agreed with Bauser- man and said implementing the watershed conservation district would be in direct contrast with the county’s strategic development plan.
The plan holds the Maryland Airport in high esteem, she said, and this would severely limit the county’s ability to do business in that area.
Despite all of the concerns about the newly proposed district, there were still those who showed up in support. Jim Long, president of the Mat- tawoman Watershed Society, said the district is coming “just in time” to stop the decline in the Mattawoman watershed’s fish community.
It is an imperfect plan, he said, but it is a start and the county is “stepping up” to correct the issues that have plagued the environment for so many years.
Alex Winter of Bryans Road said he is in support of the plan simply because of the economics of it. As a Realtor, he said, many people are making arguments that the district could lower property values. How- ever, he said, areas like Montgomery and Prince George’s counties all profit off of their natural areas. Charles County is just doing the same.
This is better than an alternative where the county has to install new infrastructure all over the place to accommodate new businesses, Winter said.
“Development requires infrastructure. Infrastructure costs a lot of money,” he said.
Ultimately, Morman said, the county needs to consider its economic future before making any decisions. There needs to be a fiscal study done with the review of the district, he said.
And at the end of the day, he said, the county’s comprehensive plan is just a roadmap. These changes do not have to come.
“It doesn’t require you to follow that comp plan to a T,” Morman said. “Please remember that.”