Commissioners schedule public hearing for WCD
Ready to hear citizens’ feedback on May 24
The Watershed Conservation District has been a hot button issue in Charles County over the last year, but now the process is finally coming to a head.
After being approved by the Charles County Planning Commission and forwarded back to the Charles County Board of Commissioners, the plan will go through both work sessions and public hearings with the county commissioners.
During last Tuesday’s
board meeting, the commissioners set the date for two initial public hearings on the same day. On May 24, the commissioners will hold public hearings at 4:30 p.m. and 6 p.m. on the zoning text amendment.
The watershed conservation district affects a portion of western Charles County near the Mattawoman Creek watershed. Supporters of the plan say the watershed conservation district is necessary to protect the environment and stop sprawling development, while opponents see it as an infringement on property rights due to development restrictions.
Now that the plan is back in the hands of the commissioners, they are able to speak openly about the amendment and what they will be examining for the first time since the initial passing of the county’s comprehensive plan.
Commissioners’ President Peter Murphy (D) said “the devil is in the details” with the watershed conservation district. There are going to be different issues, such as a potential land conveyance program, that the county commissioners could look at and consider.
But all of that will be determined, he said, by what the commissioners see and what information the public gives them. But this is a plan that the county should have approved “years ago,” Murphy said, and he is excited to start the process.
“I’m trying to make it as open as I can,” Murphy said. “The planning commission took it really seriously and got it to us in a timely fashion.”
Commissioner Ken Robinson (D) said he had a chance to look over some of the planning commission recommendations after the zoning text amendment was passed and saw some aspects he liked, like a proposed interfamily transfer program.
“If the planning commission hadn’t done that, I would have recommended the county commissioners do that,” Robinson said.
There are still likely a few issues that will need solving by the commissioners, Robinson said, which will be discovered when the public comment period begins May 24.
Another interesting aspect of the plan that could be discussed, Robinson said, is the amount of area under impervious surface restrictions. The planning commission talked about the county’s critical area and potentially making adjustments to the plan’s density and impervious surface coverage.
The impervious surface limit in the critical area of Charles County sits at 15 percent. As of now, the watershed conservation district’s proposal calls for an 8 percent impervious surface limit.
Robinson said that is a conversation he is interested in exploring and something that would take deep discussion from the county commissioners to figure out.
“There are a lot of good reasons to make that comparison,” Robinson said. “I’d like to look at the success rate within the Chesapeake Bay critical area. If that has been successful over the last 30 years, that’s something that I’d like to consider for the WCD.”
Commissioner Debra Davis (D) said she still has concerns about the plan and what it does to the western part of Charles County, including Indian Head.
There are areas starving for business and development, she said, with systems already in place throughout the county to protect the land and water. The watershed conservation district may be a step the commissioners can take, she said, but it may be too extreme.
One of her biggest concerns is the density of the district. Davis has called for data or a study to support the reasoning behind the county commissioners voting to change the area’s zoning density from one dwelling unit per 10 acres to one dwelling unit per 20 acres.
“I just want to see some data saying why,” Davis said. “We haven’t seen that yet and we’ve been asking for it.”
What the district does, Davis said, is separate people in the western portion of the county from resources they need and business development. It centralizes growth in the northern and central portions of Charles County and keeps an area seeking more development out of the picture.
Citizens need to demand the reasons why at the public hearing, Davis said, and the commissioners in support of the district will have to show them why during their work sessions.
Jason Henry, the leader of the Charles County Citizens Rights Group against the WCD, said the commissioners are just going to “push it on through” and not take into consideration what a majority of the citizens want.
“They’ve been touting the same numbers of support, but it’s been shown that those numbers weren’t correct,” Henry said in reference to the system the county used to take public comment during the planning commission’s public hearings.
Henry said the commissioners are doing everything they can to “spin” the watershed conservation district in a positive way for the county. There are ways to protect the environment, he said, without putting citizens in danger.
“They want the report on the WCD to be favorable, so they’ll say whatever they need to to get that done,” he said.
Bonnie Bick, a member of the Sierra Club in support of the WCD, said advocates are waiting for the process to begin and will continue to show their support of the plan.
The commissioners have the right ideas in place, she said, and are moving in the right direction in terms of the preservation of the county’s natural resources.
This plan is about what is best for the county, she said, and will have a positive impact on the environment moving forward.
“We just really care about the county and we’re very passionate,” Bick said.