On a warm spring morning, the fish were literally jumping in Mattawoman Creek. Anglers, both human and avian, flocked to the Potomac River tributary in Southern Maryland to try their luck as carp thrashed about in a mating frenzy.
Fishermen cast their lines from kayaks, powerboats and the shore. Herons and egrets stalked in shallows carpeted by vast green beds of spatterdock and wild rice. A bald eagle swooped from the cloudless sky to snatch a silvery morsel from the murky water.
Five years ago, after intense debate, the elected leaders of one of Maryland’s fastest growing counties took the unprecedented step for them of restricting development on 37,000 acres of land to protect this creek, which was described then as one of the state’s healthiest and most threatened water bodies.
Now, in what some critics fear is the beginning of a retrenchment, Charles County officials are eyeing a policy change that would relax those restrictions on a 558-acre chunk of the Mattawoman watershed to promote industrial development around a small private airport.
Proponents say the move will help sustain the once-struggling aviation facility and bring much-needed jobs to a mostly rural portion of the county. But environmentalists and many local residents warn that clearing the forest and adding pavement in the heart of the Mattawoman watershed could irreparably harm the creek, renowned for its fisheries and biodiversity.
“This is not just a Charles County treasure. This is a national and world natural treasure,” said Anne Stark, a Waldorf area resident and avid kayaker who describes the Mattawoman as the best Chesapeake Bay tributary she’s paddled. Allowing industrial development would be a “great ecological tragedy,” she said at a May 3 public hearing.
At the direction of Charles County’s board of commissioners, the planning commission is weighing a proposed change to the county’s long-term growth plan to remove the land around Maryland Airport from the watershed conservation district. It’s become a hot-button issue, reigniting a long-simmering tug of war between environmentalists and advocates for economic development.
Rapid growth, prime habitat
Charles is Maryland’s second fastest growing county, a bedroom community east of Washington, DC, with a population that’s swelled more than 25% since 2000. But it also has some of the state’s best habitat for fish, birds and wildlife, as well as a newly designated National Marine Sanctuary at Mallows Bay on the Potomac.
At its May 3 hearing, the seven-member planning commission heard passionate pleas from nearly two dozen residents opposed to redesignating the land around the 220-acre airport for “employment and industry.” Only two speakers supported the move — one a former consultant to the airport’s previous owner and the other part-owner of one of the tracts of land that would be opened to development.
“It’s a plus for the county, certainly a plus for the western side of the county,” said Bob Shanholtzer, the airport manager, in an interview.
The airport, which employs four people, has been there since the 1940s but fell into bankruptcy several years ago and was sold to a new owner. After the turnover, takeoffs and landings of prop planes and a few small jets grew from 13,000 to 17,000 a year as other small private airstrips in the area closed, according to the county. Many users are local residents, the airport manager said, but some out-of-towners have flown in to visit the District of Columbia or to try their luck at the MGM National Harbor casino, which is a 25-minute drive away.
Activity has fallen off since the coronavirus surged, averaging just 20 flights “on a good day,” according to Shanholtzer. But the facility’s owner has federal approval and is seeking federal funds to extend the runway from 3,700 to 4,300 feet to accommodate bigger planes, particularly jets.
The runway was extended in 2013, a project that filled in a stream valley over environmentalists’ protests. The airport’s manager contends that the facility is a model of environmental sensitivity, and that letting industry locate next to it will yield jobs and other economic opportunities. He noted that other localities in the region have permitted similar development around their small, civil-aviation airports.
Katherine Davies, who shares ownership of a former “spoon factory” just west of the airport, argued at the hearing that allowing some development wouldn’t harm the creek. Davies, who grew up in Charles County but now lives in Bethesda, said the county is losing tax revenue by limiting development of the tract once used to manufacture coffee stirrers, popsicle sticks and wooden ice cream spoons. She said the former factory property, dormant since the 1960s and since cleared of buildings, is paying one-third the taxes it did before being down-zoned.
“Nobody wants to hurt the Mattawoman, but I think you can use proven techniques to protect the [creek] and yet have some economic development,” she said.
Opponents of the land use change say they’re not against economic development but the Mattawoman is too valuable an ecosystem to be put at risk. They contend there are sites and vacant buildings elsewhere that could accommodate new workplaces.
Near a ‘tipping point’
Much of the land at issue is part of what the Maryland Department of Natural Resources has designated as a “targeted ecological area,” part of a statewide network of “lands and watersheds of high ecological value that have been identified as conservation priorities.”
It’s also one of the healthy Bay watersheds that the federal-state Chesapeake Bay Program has committed to keeping that way.
Among those warning against easing development restrictions is the DNR, which submitted written comments prior to the hearing. The department had joined with other state and federal agencies nearly a decade ago in producing a report detailing the high-quality forest and wetlands habitat found in the Mattawoman watershed and warning that it was at an ecological “tipping point” from the impacts of rampant development.
That report ultimately helped persuade Charles County’s elected board of commissioners to vote 3 to 2 in 2016 to place a little more than half of the Mattawoman’s watershed in a conservation district, which limits development and caps home building at one unit per 20 acres. The commissioners subsequently down-zoned land in the district, including that around the airport. Since then, though, new county commissioners with a more pro-growth bent have been elected.
In its comments, the DNR said that the watershed still “hangs in a delicate balance and remains in need of sound management to assure [its] unique ecological condition.” The reason for limiting development density in the watershed, the DNR noted, was to slow the growth of buildings, parking lots, roads and other impervious surfaces that could increase runoff of sediment and pollution into the creek.
Research has shown that fish and aquatic life decline in water bodies when impervious surfaces cover more than 10% of their drainage area. The DNR estimated that the Mattawoman was at about 6%. On average, it noted, industrial parks cover 55% of their sites with hard surfaces.
County planning director Jim Campbell said officials recognize the importance of protecting the Mattawoman’s natural resources and have permanently protected 8,800 acres within the watershed, with plans to do more through the state’s Rural Legacy Program.
Any development around the airport would have to comply with forest conservation and stormwater management requirements, Campbell said. The county also anticipates setting limits on impervious surface, he added.
But the DNR warned in its comments that may not be enough.
“Attempts to mitigate damage through best management practices can successfully address some issues,” the DNR wrote, “but rarely offset enough damage to keep watersheds functioning naturally.”
Given that uncertainty, the state agency recommended keeping the watershed conservation district intact, saying it was the best way to sustain the ecological health of Mattawoman Creek.
Wayne Magoon, chairman of the planning commission, questioned the warnings about a tipping point during a meeting in mid-April.
“Just because you say it doesn’t make it true,” he said.
Other commissioners, though, seemed to want more information about the issue, as well as the assertion that jobs would materialize around the airport. A nearby technology park had failed to get off the ground, and a marketing study drafted in 2015 found little reason to believe the airport could attract development. County officials say prospects have improved since then and have ordered a new study, which they say will be ready by the time the planning commission must decide.
Concerns for people, ecosystem
There are environmental justice issues in the mix. The neighboring community of Bryans Road is predominantly African American, with a pair of schools close to the airport. Residents testifying at the planning commission hearing spoke out against having more air and vehicular traffic and the attendant air pollution.
Dyothia Sweat, president of the county’s NAACP chapter, wrote in asking if the county intends to perform an environmental impact study, especially of the public health ramifications of the development. She also asked for more details to back up assertions that the move will bring jobs to the area.
Those who frequent the Mattawoman say it’s in need of more protection, not less.
At the planning hearing, Scott Sewell, conservation director of Maryland BASS Nation, called the Mattawoman “a rare gem.”
“It’s home to such a wide variety of species that spawn there and live there,” he said, “and fishermen come from all over the country to fish, especially for the bass tournaments [for] largemouth bass that live there.
He noted that bass anglers also used to frequent Piscataway Creek, a Potomac tributary to the north, but stopped as the water quality and fishery declined. Recently, Sewell said he’d seen troubling signs as well in the Mattawoman. At a recent fishing tournament in the creek’s upper reaches, he said he didn’t get a single bite.
“What I did notice is the water is not as deep and clean as it used to be,” he said. The indications of siltation he saw “should be an alarm ... that something is going on.”
“If anything,” he added, “you should be trying to preserve more land to filter the water ... You’ve taken a step forward with putting this land in preservation. Please don’t take two steps back.”
Bonnie Bick, a longtime environmental activist and advocate for Mattawoman Creek, said she believes that despite the county’s protective actions in 2016, the creek has continued to lose ground from development in the unprotected upper portion of the watershed.
“I’ve been working to save Mattawoman Creek for almost 30 years, and it’s terrible to watch it decline mainly from stormwater runoff,” she told the planning commission. “The tipping point is critically close,” she warned. “Instead of removing the [watershed conservation district], additional efforts need to be made to save the Mattawoman.”
If the planning commission recommends approval of the change, it then goes to the board of county commissioners for a public hearing and decision.
Anne Stark, the paddling enthusiast, said she’s “just dumbfounded that people aren’t outraged” by the move to allow more development. “We don’t have many places like this left,” she said. “You’d think we’d learned.”