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Environmentalists continue fight despite continuing losses

Bryans Road, MD - Environmentalists have long been a thorn in the side of Charles County government.

They appear religiously at public hearings and never fail to advocate saving precious natural resources from ever-encroaching development, much to the dismay of Charles County Planning Commission members and former Boards of County Commissioners, not to mention realtors and developers who work within the region.

Often at loggerheads with the “status quo” of Charles County, they stringently exercise rights many of the county’s citizens often neglect.

When a proposed development is on the table, they defiantly swim against the tide and despite constant defeats, press on regardless.

Much of the time they know the county code as well if not better, in some instances, than county officials. They are intelligent, soft-spoken and persistent.

Dr. Jim Long, who lives “on the Charles County side of Accokeek,” was a physicist until last October’s retirement. An environmental purveyor of county activities, he can often be found at commissioner or planning commission meetings, quietly laboring to protect the natural beauty he admires.

“We’ve had some successes,” he said, citing Chapman’s Landing, Green Springs and the Cross County Connector.

“We’re like gamblers,” Long added. “We win just enough to make us want to stay in the game.”

Green Springs in western Charles was slated for a country club. He and the “tree-huggers” fought it. The developer came back, proposing to call the project “The Preserve at Green Springs.”

“We were very surprised when it went down in defeat,” he said.

Their latest setback came Monday night when the Charles County Planning Commission approved preliminary plans for Guilford, which places 438 units, including 127 single family homes, 171 townhomes and 140 apartments on 183 acres in western Charles just south of an endangered magnolia bog which the National Park Service called “one of the most significant (and least known) natural areas” in the Metropolitan area.

Most such bogs, Long explained, are actually fens, which basically means that water runs through them. Plants have a very acidic association with the fens, he noted. They are often found to be nutrient poor, Long added, and are usually found in gravel and sand. The now-endangered magnolia bog just to the north of Bryans Road is located under a power line, which actually increases the diversity of the area.

Magnolia bogs are “globally imperiled,” he said, adding that Guilford is the tip of the iceberg in regards to planned development for western Charles.

“The property is zoned for eight thousand units,” Long stated. “Guilford is just a little slice of high density.”

He said that ordinances are often written as a collaboration between developers and county planning staff.

One reason environmentalists fought so hard, relentless in their requests that a public hearing be held on the project, was because of occurring degradation to nearby Mattawoman Creek. As recently as 2005, water quality in the small Potomac tributary was still considered good. In less than a decade, that prognosis has critically worsened.

Last September, Long told the commissioners that the comprehensive plan sent to the Planning Commission was not favorable to Mattawoman Creek.

“Plans are to make this area an urban core, a center of growth,” he told the former board.

Long stressed that the forested western sections of Charles County represent a significant component of the county’s tourism industry.

“Bass tournaments alone, the annual value is comparable to the market value of all Charles County agricultural products,” Long said. “The bass fishery is worth $40 million to this county’s economy.”

He added that when you consider those who compete in local bass tournaments spend on hotels, restaurants, local marinas and tackle shops, that $40 million translates into a $1 billion industry.

“Unfortunately, the health of Mattawoman Creek is in decline,” Long said, adding that proposed development in the western part of the county severely threatens the bass fishery.

Monday night, longtime “thorn” Bonnie Bick and Charles County Attorney Elizabeth Theobalds sparred over the issue of whether a public hearing should be called in reference to the preliminary plan before the board for Guilford.

During public comment, Bick asked for everyone in the audience who wanted a public hearing on the project to stand up, and many did.

“There has never been a public hearing on this issue,” Bick said.

Theobalds said planning commission members have “really struggled with this,” adding that as an administrative hearing, “the process does not allow for public comment.” She said that to bring the issue to a public hearing at this point in the process would be “unfair” and “disingenuous.”

“You made enough of a statement to be present here tonight and I don’t want to dismiss that,” Theobalds stated. “I am not without sympathy and empathy.”

But Bick, as she often will, refused to relent.

“I understand that the planning commission can call for a public hearing,” Bick said.

Theobalds told her that her public appearance was over.

“I protest the idea that you won’t hold a public hearing on this issue,” Bick retorted. “It speaks poorly of Charles County. Public participation makes things better.”

Long said there are encouraging signs for the future. He said the current board of county commissioners is more environmentally conscious than any previous board they’re worked with.

“There is reason for some hope,” he said.

Contact Joseph Norris at joe.norris@thebaynet.com

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