Eight Maryland cabinet secretaries have sent a sharply worded letter to Charles County’s commissioners, criticizing their comprehensive plan and urging the county to change course and conserve its natural lands.

It’s the first time the secretaries have written such a letter in Maryland. The state’s agencies largely serve as advisers when it comes to planning decisions.

The secretaries, who are part of the Maryland Smart Growth Subcabinet, say the county’s draft plan is “contrary to longstanding smart planning” and “largely ignores the county’s wealth of natural resources,” which include forests, farmland and various tributaries of the Potomac River, including Zekiah Swamp and Mattawoman Creek. The creek is one of the state’s most productive nurseries for fish and plants. The Maryland Department of Natural Resources has long been concerned about its health, particularly as a nursery for yellow perch.

The county’s draft plan changes 150,000 acres from conservation to residential use. Many farmers will be happy with that scenario because it will allow them to subdivide land and sell it to developers. But planners, environmentalists and conservationists decry the change, saying that such dense development will ruin the remaining resources and further fragment the county.

“It became more and more clear that the planning commission was going forward with a flawed plan, one that is the biggest rollback we’ve ever seen,” said Maryland Planning Secretary Richard Hall. 

Hall said that he and his staff tried to encourage the county to conserve vital resources.

Dru-Schmidt Perkins, the longtime executive director of the group 1,000 Friends of Maryland, called the plan “outrageous.” She agreed that, in her nearly two decades with the organization, she’d never seen that kind of a rollback before.

According to Schmidt-Perkins and 1,000 Friends’ Kimberly Brandt, the rollback began when a group of property owners in the western part of the county hired Murray Levy, a former state delegate and commissioner, as their lobbyist. The property owners — some of them speculators — want to increase their land’s value.

Levy knows his way around the county, and was “very influential” in crafting the plan, according to Hall and others familiar with the plan.

Their property owners’ group is called the Balanced Growth Initiative. According to their website, they’re trying to balance property rights with environmental stewardship.

Levy tells a different story. He said the homes in the rural area were zoned for one house per three acres, even in areas that were not developed. The county’s new plan changed it to 1 in 20, without consulting property owners. So, they hired him, Levy said, to lobby the county commissioners and the planning department for a change.

Levy said the county doesn’t need the restrictive zoning because, between 2002 and 2008, for every acre developed in the rural areas, two were conserved.

“Why don’t you just leave it alone and see how it goes?” Levy asked, “It’s worked pretty well so far.”

But past practices don’t ensure future safeguards. Charles County is one of the fastest growing in Maryland. In the last decade, 30,000 residents moved in — most of them from neighboring Prince George’s County. As is the case pretty much everywhere else in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, people are willing to drive long distances for jobs in Washington, DC, or other metropolitan centers if they get to come home to rural beauty — and they want good roads for their commute.

That’s one reason Levy has helped put the Cross-County Connector back on the table. The road, which would have traveled next to Mattawoman Creek, went off the books last year after the Army Corps of Engineers denied a permit for it citing wetland concerns. But the county wants to fund environmental studies that could pave the way for reconsideration.

Such persistence worked in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, Levy said. After 40 years of fights, the environmentalists lost, and the Inter-County Connector that joins the two most populous DC suburbs opened in 2011.

“Why can they get a connector through that environmental area and we can’t get a road through our environmental areas for development?” Levy asked. “We’re out of options, too…we need a transit plan now. Our roads are already overcrowded.”

Levy said polls show new residents want better roads, access to medical facilities and some of the other amenities that come with development. But in reality, Hall and Schmidt-Perkins say, it’s hard to know what residents want, and tough to connect with them.

Many county workers commute to DC. The newspaper that is devoted to the county, the Maryland Independent, only publishes twice a week. It has dutifully covered the hearings and meetings, but it’s been hard to see if people in the county care deeply about the possible changes. But 1,000 Friends surveys have shown people there do care deeply about the county’s natural resources, and do use them. Indeed, Hall said, it’s the reason many people choose to live in Charles County.

Smart Growth Alliance for Charles County, 1,000 Friends of Maryland and Mattawoman Watershed Society have also been active opponents of the plan. The commissioners had scheduled a hearing on the matter on Oct. 29.

Other counties in the fast-growing corridors near DC have taken different approaches. As Tom Horton recently reported in the Bay Journal, Calvert County — right next door — has put a cap on development and instituted a transfer-development-rights program that has been successful at keeping sprawl to a minimum. (See “Calvert County holding the line on reducing new growth,” October 2013.) Montgomery County has six times as many people as Charles, yet it manages to keep a third of its land in resource conservation.

As for what the state can do about a plan they abhor, Hall said there are some options. Charles County wants state money for transit-oriented development in Waldorf. It may find those funds going elsewhere. The same goes for road funding or other assistance. But, Hall stressed, the state is still hoping to work with Charles officials to amend the plan and save the county’s green spaces and rural character.