County residents at odds over conservation district
Tempers flare at planning comm. zoning hearing
The Charles County Comprehensive Plan and its proposed Watershed Conservation District has finally become the talk of the town.
Residents from all over the county packed the Charles County Government Building on Monday night during a planning commission meeting. The building was so crowded that some even had to stand to wait their turn to speak.
More than 130 citizens signed up to speak on the proposed watershed conservation district zoning. There were so many speakers that Angela Sherard, newly selected chairwoman of the com- mission, and the commission members elected to continue the meeting on Thursday evening after three hours of speaking.
In the face of a large and impatient crowd, Sherard said she and the commission wanted to hear each and every cit- izen’s concern. Citizens are upset, she said, because the district is a big issue.
“We understand,” she said. “We want to hear their concerns as citi- zens. This is important.”
A majority of the audience showed up against the watershed conservation district zoning, citing property loss and “the right to due process,” according to Bill Dotson, the chairman of the Charles County Republican Central Committee. Dotson helped organize many people and canvassed “thousands” of doors, he said, to bring people to Monday’s meeting.
Throughout the night, a majority of the crowd
applauded when discuss- ing property rights and booed at any mention of conservation district zoning. At one point, one speaker had to be forcibly removed by security after going over his speaking time by a minute.
Dotson, who described himself as a “conserva- tionist,” said this is what happens when people’s freedom comes “under attack.”
“Some of their life sav- ings are into these properties,” he said. “Three commissioners affecting thousands of people. I’m here to represent these disenfranchised people.”
Dotson said people did not get a chance to vote on this district. It did not come down to any refer- endum or any option for citizens. It is just like the “rain tax” he said, that was “made up by extremists.”
“That didn’t work out so well,” he said.
Jerry Feith, a White Plains resident, said many government officials have used language like “too early to tell” and “hard to say” about the district and its effect on surrounding properties. And that, he said, should be a concern to citizens in itself.
“These are the type of responses from people who make more than $100,000 per year and are paid by us,” he said.
Feith said three com- missioners voting for the comprehensive plan should not be able to im- pact thousands of citizens in a negative way. Commissioners are elected to “serve, not rule,” he said, and what the water- shed conservation district would do is a violation of a right to “due process.”
There is a concern about property tax hikes and land value decreases, but Alex Winter, a citizen from Bryans Road, said many properties would benefit from having this zoning, including his own 24-acre property.
Winter said he previous- ly had his property rights violated when the county chose to mark the devel- opment district right on the edge of his property line, which brought down the value of his land because of the potential for increased development. Now, he said, that has a chance to change.
There are a lot of inac- curacies in the information going around, Winter said, and people who do not own “40 or 60” acres of land will not be affected in the ways they are thinking.
“Most of the people who are hurt are people who have suffered from the in- tense overdevelopment,” Winter said. “There are many people here who have been misled because of nonsense that’s being spewed, but most people don’t feel that way because they’re having to pay for the infrastructure for the gross overdevelopment.”
But Jason Henry, who resides on Chi- camuxen Road, said his great-grandparents who purchased land for their family after being freed from slavery could now see their legacy tarnished because of the district.
His parents bought 30 acres of land that has been in the family for “over 152 years,” he said. “This land has passed through four generations.”
If the amendment is adopted, he said, his fa- ther will not be able to leave the land to him or his grandchildren or any great-grandchildren because it will have no value.
“Families like mine have had to work very hard to obtain the American dream,” Henry said. “By adopting this amendment, you’re preventing that.”
Ken Hastings, a mem- ber of the Mason Springs Conservancy, said he was encouraged to see so many people show up to the hearing ready to speak but also said he would have liked to see them appear before.
The 2011 comprehensive plan’s process was “the most transparent” he has ever seen, he said, and had arguments from both environmentalists and “the lobby” for developer rights. But this time around, he said, the push back from developers did not appear until recently.
Previously, he said, there had been opportunities to bring people in who were experts to talk about the process from both points of view, but that did not happen. And now, he said, the county is at the current moment debating over the conservation district’s zoning.
“I see a lot of war here, and not a lot of peace,” he said.
County residents pack the auditorium of the Charles County government building on Monday night in preparation to speak on the watershed conservation district plan.
Ken Hastings, a member of the Mason Springs Conservancy, delivers his remarks on the watershed conservation district to county planning staff and the Charles County Planning Commission.
Jerry Feith, a Charles County citizen, prepares to walk up to the podium and speak on behalf of property owners throughout Charles County against the watershed conservation district in front of the planning commission during Monday’s meeting.