Officials pass watershed conservation district
Opponents say they will petition for referendum
By a 3-2 vote, the Charles County Board of Commissioners voted Tuesday to approve the creation of a controversial Watershed Conservation District that supporters say will prevent sprawling development and protect the environment in the western portion of the county, but that opponents say is an infringement on landowners’ property rights.
“This has been the most divisive thing to come across my desk since I’ve been sitting here, for six and a half years,” said Commissioner Debra Davis (D). “I stand vehemently against it.”
Davis and Commissioner Bobby Rucci (D) voted against the measure, despite a last-minute amendment by Commissioner Ken Robinson (D) which would have carved out exemptions.
“We do not have the right as commissioners to pick and choose people’s property rights in the county,” Rucci said.
The watershed conservation district affects approximately 36,000 acres in the northwestern portion of Charles County near the Mattawoman Creek watershed.
It restricts impervious surface coverage for most uses to 8 percent, but exempts churches and schools, and allows parcels under 3 acres to exceed the 8 percent limit up to 10,500 square feet of development.
It limits population density to one dwelling unit per 20 acres, although it
grandfathers existing lots of less than 20 acres, and allows for the creation of up to two additional lots less than one unit per 20 acres for property owners who have owned the land for 10 or more years.
Under the WCD, permitted uses include open-air markets, single family residential units, group homes, bed and breakfasts, country inns, schools, churches, cemeteries, veterinary uses and wineries, said Steve Kaii-Ziegler, director of planning and growth management.
Permitted as a special exception are daycares and nurseries, halfway houses, elderly care facilities, room rentals, boarding houses, housing shelters, private schools and colleges, libraries and institutional uses, fraternal clubs, campgrounds, recreational facilities, antique shops and galleries and research facilities, KaiiZiegler said.
The measure has come up for review at two public hearings, during which dozens of county residents turned out to express their views.
Over 500 comments were received, KaiiZiegler said.
A number of technical amendments to the WCD, mostly correcting typographical errors, were also passed by a 3-2 vote.
Davis said she didn’t vote for any of the technical amendments because, “I think putting lipstick on a pig, you’ve still got a pig.”
Rucci motioned for the measure to go to referendum, but withdrew it after being informed that the measure could not go to referendum until the board voted on it.
Robinson made a motion to amend the measure to allow areas previously zoned for commercial use to maintain their zoning.
“I felt it was important not to penalize those people who already own property and might have commercial plans,” Robinson said.
The amendment also includes the commercial and industrial zones around the airport within the WCD, but adds the consideration of an airport overlay zone to allow limited commercial usage with environmental restrictions.
The amendment, like the WCD itself, passed 3-2.
“I found the timing of this, in light of what is happening on the national stage, to be very important,” Robinson said. “I think it is more important than ever to act locally to protect the natural resources here in Charles County that we all cherish.”
Jim Long of the Mattawoman Watershed Society applauded the commissioners’ move, saying the measure will help control unrestrained growth and protect the environment.
“This watershed conser vation district lets the county catch up,” Long said.
“It’s a real quality of life issue,” added Bonnie Bick, a member of the Sierra Club and supporter of the WCD, who lives in Prince George’s County. “Are you going to have unconstrained growth, or are you going to have a higher quality of life?”
Jason Henry, chairman of Charles County Citizens Rights, said the group planned to file a petition for referendum.
“We have to wait until the commissioners sign this, and once they do, we’ll begin collecting signatures to bring it to referendum,” Henry said.
Henry said the WCD is a particular hardship to African Americans living within the WCD, who may be land rich and money poor.
“Grandma may have a house, and some land, but she’s living off Social Security,” Henry said. Henry said that in his family, his aunt sold family property in 5-acre increments to pay for his great-grandmother’s nursing home care. “There are a lot of implications that are going to be negatively impacting the residents of the county.”
In an opinion from Jeremy McCoy, assistant attorney general of Maryland, to Charles County Del. Edith Patterson (D), the referendum petition must be filed within 40 days of enactment of the law, and must garner the signatures of at least 10 percent of registered voters in Charles County.
If the petition garners more than half of the required signatures by the 40-day deadline, the deadline is extended an additional 40 days.
If the requisite number of signatures are submitted and verified by the Board of Elections, the measure will be put on hold until it can go to referendum vote during the next Congressional or special election.
The full text of the WCD can be found on the commissioners’ BoardDocs site under the agenda for the June 6 meeting. Go to www.boarddocs.com/ md/chrlsco/Board.nsf/ Public.
White Plains resident Jerry Feith, front, and other opponents of the Watershed Conservation District brought signs to the Charles County Board of Commissioners meeting Tuesday afternoon, during which the commissioners voted 3-2 to approve the WCD.