Murphy, Robinson shun referendum on watershed plan
Davis calls for people to vote on issue
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.