Charles citizens tee off over WCD
Emotions flare in public hearings
The Charles County Board of Commissioners have stated their intention to have the watershed conservation district (WCD) process finalized by the end of June. But before they do, the citizens of Charles County are giving them more issues to think about.
Citizens both for and against the district showed up at Wednesday
night’s public hearing to speak on the zoning text amendment, which supporters say is needed in order to protect an environmentally sensitive area and discourage overdevelopment in western Charles County. Opponents to the text amendment say it infringes on property rights and would be detrimental do business development.
At 3:20 p.m., with the meeting scheduled to begin at 4 p.m., the parking lot outside the county administration building was nearly filled. Protesters stood outside arguing with supporters of the amendment. A second public hearing was scheduled for 6:30 p.m.
Meanwhile, inside the county hearing chambers, citizens were teeing off from both sides of the fence on why they are on the right side of history in Charles County.
Alex Winter, who said he owns property in Bryans Road, said the county is recovering from a history of unnecessary and unorganized development. Winter, who said he owns 24 acres, said he had his property divided and zoned differently by a previous board of county commissioners.
That can happen again, he said, if the district is not approved. “It is very important that these adjustments be tailored in an analytical way that addresses the true questions of equity rather than some sort of quick thought on how do we deal with this,” Winter said.
Jim Long, president of the Mattawoman Watershed Society, said one of the biggest reasons he supports the district is the protection of Naval Support Facility Indian Head from a base realignment and closure process in the near future.
The WCD would continue to funnel businesses and customers into Indian Head and further push the county’s tourism economy forward, Long said.
“Supply and demand says that we should invest in the town,” Long said.
But there were some still in opposition to the watershed conservation district. Bill Dotson, chairman of the Charles County Republican Central Committee and a member of the Charles County Citizens Rights Group, said there was nothing addressed during the meeting that would change the commissioners’ minds. But now, he said, citizens see how the commissioners really work.
Will Muster, a county citizen, said the way he has seen county officials operate surrounding the watershed conservation district and how the commissioners have pushed the zoning text amendment forward concerned him to the point where he cannot trust what they say.
“There has been a lack of transparency and critical study provided to the public,” Muster said. “I, for one, can’t trust you. I bet there are many voters who feel the same.”
Bonnie Bick, an Oxon Hill resident who is a member of the Southern Maryland Sierra Club, said she appreciated the process leading up to the public hearing and called it “a model for public participation.”
Bick said the county has previously been upzoned, enduring years of unmeasured growth. The WCD would be a welcome addition for the county, she said.
Edward Joel, an Indian Head citizen, said he had an issue with the public hearing being at 4 p.m., but he showed up to support the zoning text amendment nonetheless. The benefits for the county are too important, he said.
In the past, he said, people have suggested that the WCD is a racist policy, but that is not the case, Joel said.
Steve Kaii-Zeigler, the director of the planning and growth management department, said the county gathered census voting data in an effort to categorize the area by race.
African-Americans make up about 48 percent of the area within the watershed conservation district, Kaii-Zeigler said, but whites make up the other 42 percent of the area according to 2010 census voting data categorized by race. Ten percent of the population in the area also categorized themselves as “other,” he said.
“It’s really a mix throughout that area,” he said.
Joel said the Mattawoman’s tipping point is the most concerning issue here. The watershed conservation district would reverse the damage that has been done. There is “empirical evidence,” he said, that the zoning text amendment needs to be passed.
Some citizens said they believe the zoning text amendment to be an issue entirely driven by politics. Brian Klaas, a county resident and a member of the county’s Chamber of Commerce, said Charles needs a “new day” in their politics.
Klaas said the county is doing a disservice to their citizens by taking away their property rights. As a Democrat, Klaas said he believes the role of the party is to help people. That is the opposite of what the county is doing, he said — and the commissioners — all of whom are Democrats — could potentially pay for it.
“We know what fair is. And this is not fair. This has nothing to do with the environment, it has everything to do with power,” Klaas said. “We’ve allowed flames of environmental protections to trample our rights. The environment is now used to divide us. The environment is now used to exclude us.”
Jason Henry, leader of the Charles County Citizens Rights Group, said his family has owned land in the county for 152 years. As a citizen, he only wants the commissioners to do what is right by the people who elected them.
Henry, who has announced his intention to run for commissioner but has not officially filed with the Maryland Board of Elections, said the citizens will remember what the results of the vote on the district will be.
Dave Campbell, also a member of the Charles County Citizens Rights Group, said the county commissioners have separated themselves from those they represent.
Campbell said he approached an unnamed commissioner about owning 60 acres of property in Bryans Road outside of the watershed conservation district. A commissioner later called, he said, and explained to him the restrictions in Bryans Road are more strict than they are in the district, but Campbell said it did not matter.
“You all have that choice,” he said. “These people don’t have a choice.”
There needs to be a change, Campbell said. And if he has to run for office to make that change happen, he said, he is willing to do it.
Ciara Albrittain, a county citizen who will soon go off to college, said she does not understand why the watershed conservation district is a policy the county is moving forward with.
Albrittain gave her testimony after her mother, Deidre Albrittain, spoke to the commissioners first. As Deidre gave her short testimony, she broke out in tears as she talked about how the zoning text amendment would have a negative financial impact on her family.
Ciara Albrittain, beginning to choke up herself, said she has seen the negative effects the discussion surrounding the zoning text amendment has had on her parents. Many “real citizens” in Charles County are going through the same things her family is, she said, and it is not right.
After she graduates from college, she said, she wants to “return home” — just as Commissioners’ President Peter Murphy’s (D) 2014 campaign slogan once said.
“After college, I’d like to, too,” she said. “But this would make it hard.”