A Commitment to Preservation – Not happening here

Chapter 4 – One of Maryland’s smart growth “carrots” supports the purchase of easements for preservation of farm and forest land. Essentially, property owners are compensated for not developing their land. To maximize state funding opportunities, counties must establish a Priority Preservation Area (PPA) and demonstrate a commitment to preservation.

One way to show such a commitment is to assign low-density zoning to properties within the PPA. Farmland in Charles County has long had 1 unit per three acres (1:3) zoning, though it is generally accepted that 1:3 does not reflect a long-term commitment to raise anything other than houses. Despite this issue, the Planning Commission decided not to establish a PPA if it meant downzoning, as many farmers objected to losing “potential” subdivision value.

A similar attitude prevailed regarding the protection of sensitive areas like stream valleys. The 1:3 zoning almost everywhere had stimulated interest in the development potential of the valleys with little or no regard for the environmental consequences. That explains why the first BGI-dominated land use maps had few areas where stream valleys had anything more than the minimal prescribed buffers along the streams.

Historically, Transfer of Development Rights (TDRs) has been used to allow the owners of property in rural and sensitive areas to sell some of their density for use in areas where dense development was encouraged. The 2012 Planning Commission majority expressed a distrust of TDRs based on the alleged failures of Charles County’s program and rejected opportunities for further education from experts. The subject of Purchase of Development Rights (PDRs) where public money is used to retire development density met the same fate as TDRs for similar reasons.

Perhaps either TDRs or PDRs would have saved the day without downzoning, but the Planning Commission didn’t want to know how to make it happen.

Read more from our ongoing series, “Charles County’s Comprehensive Plan fiasco.”