Mur­phy, Robin­son shun ref­er­en­dum on wa­ter­shed plan

Davis calls for peo­ple to vote on is­sue

Maryland Independent - - Front Page - By MICHAEL SYKES II msykes@somd­

The wa­ter­shed conservation dis­trict plan over the last few months has been the big­gest talk­ing point in Charles County among cit­i­zens and of­fi­cials.

Since the turn of the year, the Charles County Plan­ning Com­mis­sion has held public hear­ings and work ses­sions on the zon­ing text amend­ment to de­ter­mine what changes need to be made to it be­fore it is suit­able to send back to the Charles County Board of Com­mis­sion­ers.

But dur­ing Mon­day’s meet­ing where fi­nal rec­om­men­da­tions were made, the sub­ject of putting the amend­ment up to ref­er­en­dum on a bal­lot came up, but failed to move for­ward in a mo­tion.

Now, with the plan­ning com­mis­sion’s rec­om­men­da­tions com­plete, it is up to the county com­mis­sion­ers to de­ter­mine if ref­er­en­dum is nec­es­sary. And, as it stands right now, it seems the an­swer would re­main no.

The wa­ter­shed conservation dis­trict is part of the

county’s com­pre­hen­sive plan, and aims to pro­tect a sec­tion of the western part of the county from de­vel­op­ment near the Mat­ta­woman Creek wa­ter­shed. Sup­port­ers of the plan say the WCD is needed to pro­tect the en­vi­ron­men­tally sen­si­tive area to overde­vel­op­ment, while op­po­nents say the plan in­fringes on prop­erty rights and see it as gov­ern­ment over­reach.

Elected of­fi­cials are elected to make de­ci­sions for the peo­ple, County Com­mis­sion­ers’ Pres­i­dent Pe­ter Mur­phy (D) said. A de­ci­sion on a land use pol­icy of this mag­ni­tude, he said, is some­thing that takes more than a vote to fig­ure out.

“We see how it ties into ed­u­ca­tion and trans­porta­tion and public safety and the en­vi­ron­ment and all of those fac­tors. And we un­der­stand the bud­get im­pli­ca­tions of it,” Mur­phy said.

Of­ten times, he said, when peo­ple vote on ref­er­en­dum items, they do not have the op­por­tu­nity to grasp the “big pic­ture” of the item be­cause of other re­spon­si­bil­i­ties and time con­straints. That has to be con­sid­ered, he said.

County Com­mis­sioner Ken Robin­son (D) agreed and said elected of­fi­cials are elected by peo­ple to do their jobs, not place new items on the bal­lot. Plac­ing an item on ref­er­en­dum like the wa­ter­shed conservation dis­trict would be an un­prece­dented step for the county, he said.

“I don’t think we’ve ever had a land use pol­icy go on ref­er­en­dum,” he said.

Mur­phy said it is still un­clear to the county whether the item can even be put on ref­er­en­dum de­spite the ef­fort from Plan­ning Com­mis­sioner Wayne Ma­goon to rec­om­mend it to the com­mis­sion­ers on Mon­day night.

Deputy County At­tor­ney El­iz­a­beth Theobalds said that is still some­thing the county at­tor­ney’s staff is re­view­ing.

“This is some­thing that our of­fice is in­ves­ti­gat­ing,” she said.

If it can go, Mur­phy said, there will be a process that comes with it. And if any­one wants to do that, he said, they would have to fol­low that process. But the process would likely go into the county’s time­line for mak­ing a fi­nal de­ci­sion on the amend­ment.

Mur­phy said the county would like to be fin­ished with the item by the sum­mer, but a ref­er­en­dum would ex­tend it long be­yond that point. The over­all com­pre­hen­sive plan has been in the works for “years and years and years,” he said. This would just be another ex­ten­sion, he said, onto the de­lay from the 2011 plan.

“I’m go­ing to move ahead based on what we know, which is the next step is we get those rec­om­men­da­tions and start our process,” Mur­phy said. “I’d love to get it done no later than June.”

But County Com­mis­sioner De­bra Davis (D) said the idea of a ref­er­en­dum is “long over­due for these land use is­sues” de­spite not hav­ing op­er­ated that way in the past.

The county has a his­tory of “elect­ing ex­trem­ists,” Davis said and the county owes it to their cit­i­zens to have “a more bal­anced” preser­va­tion plan.

“All of our prop­erty rights are at risk,” Davis said.

The big­gest ar­gu­ment in sup­port of a ref­er­en­dum, Davis said, is that the amend­ment’s sup­port­ers would have to ex­plain why they sup­port the is­sue and why it has been cre­ated. That has not hap­pened yet, she said.

This is a pol­icy many peo­ple con­sider “racist and red-lin­ing one part of the county,” she said. Peo­ple have ma­jor con­cerns about how it will af­fect the county’s fu­ture growth po­ten­tial and, in turn, its econ­omy.

But this is a case, she said, where peo­ple need to let the county know of their con­cerns. “The prece­dent it would set would be the peo­ple’s voice would be heard,” she said.

“In a demo­cratic so­ci­ety in mid-elec­tion, what is left to do when there are such ex­treme po­si­tions?” Davis said.

There are peo­ple both for and against the is­sue, Davis said, and if the sup­port­ers of the WCD be­lieve their sup­port out­weighs its op­po­si­tion then there should be no is­sue with a vote.

How­ever, Robin­son said, the claim that there is a wide rang­ing op­po­si­tion to the amend­ment may not be true. The sup­port may be loud, he said, but that does not mean it is the largest.

And be­fore any ref­er­en­dum de­ci­sion is made, if there is one to be made, he said, the com­mis­sion­ers still need to de­ter­mine what the fi­nal amend­ment will look like.

But Davis said, ul­ti­mately, once it is de­cided, it should be left up to the cit­i­zens.

“The peo­ple’s voice would rule,” she said.

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