Embracing dumb growth — The latest on Charles County’s comprehensive plan failure

A Promising Start

The process to update Charles County’s 2006 Comprehensive Plan began in the spring of 2011 with an extensive public outreach effort. The county is projected to grow from a 2010 population of 146,551 to a 2040 population of 221,950. The intent of the public outreach program was to allow discussion and debate over how the county will accommodate that growth.

Three development scenarios were presented to the public. The Smarter Growth Alliance for Charles County (SGACC) supported Scenario 1, the Smart Growth scenario, which balanced protection of natural resources with investment in communities having the infrastructure to support growth. Key elements of Scenario 1 included:

  • Future development is concentrated in St. Charles, La Plata, Indian Head, and the Waldorf urban core, which will be redeveloped as a walkable, mixed-use community.
  • Transit in Waldorf and the upgrade of 301 are transportation priorities; the Cross County Connector is not supported.
  • The focus in Bryans Road is on enhancing existing development and making the village more walkable, with little new residential development added to the area.
  • The Indian Head Tech Park is not supported, as BRAC did not result in a significant increase in jobs at Indian Head and the private sector interests withdrew from the project.
  • The 18,000-acre Deferred Development District, which is in the Mattawoman Creek Watershed, is eliminated and those lands are permanently made part of the rural area.
  • All stream valleys have a residential density of 1 unit per 20 acres.
  • The plan includes a Priority Preservation Area, which is required for counties that wish to qualify for the maximum amount of state funding for land preservation.

A Focus on the Financial Interests of a Few

A majority on the Planning Commission rejected Smart Growth and endorsed the vision of local land speculators. Their idea of planning for the future is, in essence, no planning since development is encouraged throughout the county. They ignored countless reports attesting to the need for a new direction, including the County’s Land Use Market Supply and Demand Analysis that identifies an existing capacity for 52,309 new dwelling units, compared to demand for only 32,208 units through 2040. The Planning Commission submitted a draft plan to the state in late 2012 that:

  • Designates most of the rural area of the county for residential use at a density of 1 unit per 3 acres and no longer designates any land in the county for agriculture, potentially wiping out the county’s farming heritage and future;
  • Continues to include the Cross County Connector, an expensive road project that the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers deemed “contrary to the public interest” because of the impacts on the Mattawoman Creek;
  • Targets Bryans Road for dense development, which will undermine ecotourism efforts;
  • Includes the Indian Head Tech Park, a suburban office park that would be adjacent to Chapman State Park;
  • Maintains the 18,000-acre Deferred Development District in the Mattawoman Creek Watershed; and
  • Includes no Priority Preservation Area and no agricultural land preservation goal.

A Strong Reaction from the State

The comments received from the state expressed alarm about the direction that the county is heading in and noted that the few smart, sustainable concepts in the plan, like transit-oriented development in Waldorf, will be undermined by policies promoting suburbanization of the entire county. Highlights of the state’s comments include:

  • “Maryland Department of Planning’s primary concern with this draft Comprehensive Plan is the change in County policies that are now directed toward promoting development outside of the County’s growth areas and encouraging the proliferation of large-lot sprawl development, without consideration for environmental impacts or the increased cost of growth-related infrastructure to both the State and local government.”
  • “Promoting higher density development within the Waldorf Urban Core while allowing low density development to occur virtually everywhere else in the County will make it difficult to attract transit-oriented development to the urban core.”
  • “The designation of Rural Residential Districts and continuation of certain land use policies and regulations in other non-PFAs, i.e., the areas outside of Priority Funding Areas, will have significant adverse impacts on the County’s transportation system. This auto-dependent land-use pattern would put greater travel demand on the already stressed state and local roadway networks.”
  • “Maryland Department of Planning has conducted a statewide county-level comparison analysis of roadway construction and maintenance costs for Current Trends and Smart Growth Scenarios. For Charles County alone, the Current Trend Scenario would have an estimated public and private cost of almost $2 billion more for roadway construction and maintenance as compared to the Smart Growth Scenario.”
  • “Minimizing low-density developments in rural areas is needed to make the higher density development more practical and implementable.”

Next Steps

Currently, the Planning Commission is conducting work sessions to review the comments received on the draft plan. They could choose to ignore the comments from the state and concerned citizens and send the plan to the Board of County Commissioners as is, with a recommendation for adoption. If the County Commissioners adopt the draft plan as is, Charles County residents can expect a future marked by:

  • A continued glut of new homes that depress the value of existing homes;
  • Regular tax increases as the county struggles to provide services to new development;
  • Worse traffic congestion as low-density, vehicle-dependent development spreads throughout the county;
  • Increased pollution of local rivers and streams, compromising the ability of residents and tourists to fish and swim safely; and
  • Destruction of the county’s unique rural attributes and resources and a declining quality of life for all residents.

It is essential that residents contact the Board of County Commissioners and let them know that this is not their vision for the county’s future. Residents should also attend future meetings concerning the plan, spread the word about the county’s poor planning, and join us as we work for a smarter future for Charles County.

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