Comp Plan...more

What is a Comprehensive Plan?

As a land-use guide, the Comprehensive Plan serves as the basis for zoning, which determines:

  •  future community locations and their density
  •  future school locations
  • future locations for bike lanes, roads and other commuter


  • important infrastructure such as water and sewer lines
  • places of land preservation for:

                 -farmers                      -tourism-based economies

                 -recreation                  -rural beauty

                 -natural filtering of storm water to protect our waters

Hence the Comp Plan steers where community investments will occur.  It is the single most important document by which a local government sets a sense of place, determines the quality of life, and establishes whether economic development is sustainable, or not.

It also is key to water quality (see Land Use issue). Thus, because Charles County holds three fourths of Mattawoman’s watershed, its land-use polices directly affect the health of the river and its estuary, the people who fish, swim, bike and boat, and the tourism industry.

What are the problems with current plan?

Unfortunately, the county’s 2006 Comprehensive Plan, and the now-proposed 2016 update, is designed to lead Mattawoman down the now-familiar path from a high-quality system to a highly degraded waterway.

In fact, most of the issues facing the creek today are direct symptoms of the Charles County Comprehensive Plan. So far, the plan caused about 10% of the Mattawoman watershed to be covered with impervious surface, which includes:

            •roads              •roofs               •parking lots

            •driveways       •sidewalks        •plazas & curbs

At the present 10% coverage, scientific studies show that life in the water declines because impervious surface prevents rainwater infiltration into soils, ends water filtration by forest, and funnels pollutants in erosive surges into our streams after storms. Right on schedule, Mattawoman’s fish communities are now showing an alarming decline. [1, 2]

The problem began in 1990, when Charles County’s Comp Plan opened the watershed to intense development with the declaration of a “development district” 30% larger than Washington D.C. Such a gigantic area extending from the urban areas of Waldorf through rural regions all the way to the Potomac River defines costly “sprawl development.”  

Sprawl development requires expensive spread-out infrastructure, costs more to service, and is difficult to manage. As a result, past Comp Plans now see Charles County citizens paying with:

  • the highest real-estate tax-rate of all counties in the state
  • the greatest use of trailers for schooling students
  • the upheaval of frequent school redistricting
  • the longest commute times in the state
  • flat resale values for existing neighborhoods
  • traffic jams on north-south commuter routes.
  • no chance to live in a walkable Waldorf with mass transit to the     Branch Avenue metro stop.

What’s more, there has been an alarming decline in spawning migratory-fish in the free-flowing river, and in the health of the larger fish community in Mattawoman’s estuary. Until 2005, Mattawoman was identified as Maryland’s most productive fish-spawning and nursery ground in the Chesapeake Bay system. [4, 5]  This decline has been linked specifically to urbanization in the watershed. [1, 2, 6]

Opportunities to address land-use problems occurred in 1997 and 2006 during state-required updates to the Comprehensive Plan. But the updates were no better. [7]  In fact they piled on more problems by advocating the conversion of the one-stoplight village of Bryans Road, located in an especially sensitive “Stronghold Watershed,” into a new urban center.   And now, Indian Head proposes to annex land along the creek all the way to the Indian Head Rail Trail.  

What can be done?

            It is not too late to improve Mattawoman’s outlook! 

            The revision of the Comp Plan could fix these problems. 

The Water Resource Element (WRE): The state guidance to counties for writing a Comp Plan emphasizes a required chapter called the Water Resources Element. [8]  In this chapter, the county must ensure three things: (i)adequate drinking water; (ii) adequate wastewater treatment capabilities; and (iii) stormwater management that ensures the water quality of streams, rivers, and estuaries.

The state guidance recommends that the WRE be integrated directly into the planning process. For each land-use scenario considered, models should be used to compute pollution loads. If a land-use scenario fails to meet the pollution goals, it should be improved until it does.

Unfortunately, Charles County has essentially ignored these recommendations.

No modelling is being conducted, and the developers’ 2013 scenario is facetiously being used as a straw-man to compare the present draft. This stance rejects a promise made to the public in 2011 that the WRE would serve as “litmus test” to gage the various land-use scenarios.

Charles County is the primary source of pollution for two waterways that have officially mandated pollution diets: Port Tobacco River and Mattawoman Creek. The WRE attached to the 2006 Comp Plan showed that stormwater pollution washing into the Port Tobacco and Mattawoman exceeds levels that would maintain water quality. The WRE computations for the current revision are unavailable.

Specific fixes to the failed 2006 plan:   

A major report has been written by a state, federal, and academic Task Force specifically  to guide the comp plan revision. The Task Force finds that Mattawoman is at a critical “tipping point.” They conclude: “the current update of the Comprehensive Plan may well represent the last opportunity the County will have to establish permanent protection of the Mattawoman’s resources and ecological functions.”1

The Task Force recommended dozens of changes to the Comp Plan that could help save Mattawoman’s integrity. Many of these recommendations were also arrived at during an intense year-long process (2011) that integrated extensive public input into a draft plan. The public overwhelmingly favored protecting our natural resources. The resulting draft plan contained many improvements over the past.  

Unfortunately, a four-to-three majority on Charles County’s appointed Planning Commission rejected in 2012 the improvements and instead opted for a plan even worse than the 2006 plan, which follows the so-called Tiers Map developed by an anti-environmental lobby for land speculators.  The lobby's plan overreached, and the plan has now been returned essentially to the failed 2006 plan. Hence, the Planning Commission is ignoring the compromise "merged scenario" forged during the public process of 2011, is ignoring most of the scientifically based fixes recommended by the Task Force.

The Task Force and the publicly engaged process in 2011 generated many important enhancements for the Comp Plan that now languish on the drawing board. Among these are:

·   elimination of, and down zoning within, the enormous development district, about which the Task Force stated: “As presently planned, the Development District [including the deferred development district] will irreversibly alter the ability of Charles County citizens and tourists to have access to clean water, high quality fisheries, and a great outdoor experience, unless specific steps are taken to bring regulation and land-use policies in line with the stated county vision of protecting the Mattawoman.”1

·   protection through 1-in-20 zoning of the Mattawoman stream valley as already mapped by the Department of Natural Resources. The mapping followed specifications given in the Mattawoman Creek Watershed Management Plan3 by the Army Corps, who stated this was single most effective step to mediate the erosive, heated, and polluted stormwater discharging from the impervious surfaces of urbanization.

·   the return of the one-stoplight town of Bryans Road to its original village concept rather than a new urban center located in an important Stronghold Watershed of Mattawoman Creek. This change would make Bryans Road consistent with the permit denials for the Cross County Connector, because the subarea plan for Bryans Road clearly states that the CCC is required to turn Bryans Road into a new urban center.

·   elimination of the proposal to build in the village of Bryans Road an inappropriately sited Science and Technology Park, located on 278 acres of sensitive forest among the headwater streams to one of Mattawoman’s most pristine tributaries. There are tech parks with vacant land already in Charles County, and re-investment in Indian Head would be more appropriate.

·   re-evaluation of the large number of old, unbuilt and unvested projects still on the books through generous “grandfathering” provisions. Such a large backlog constrains the effectiveness of plan revisions, and likely contains proposal that over time have become obsolete, would be disruptive to existing communities if built, or now would contribute unacceptably to the mounting cumulative impacts affecting social resources (e.g. schools) and natural resources.

What about commerce and housing?

It is important to realize that the necessary improvements enumerated above are entirely consistent with the economic needs of the county, according to analyses conducted during the 2011 public-process to revise the comp plan.[9]  For example, county wide, over 90% of the housing units needed to accommodate expected population growth out to 2040 are already built or in the “pipeline” (and clearly need re-evaluation).   

Similarly, undeveloped acreage already earmarked for commercial space exceeds projected needs in the county out to 2040 by 250%.

Further, revising overly generous and inappropriate zoning is critical in order to reform the existing but inadequate “transfer of development rights” (TDR) program, and to establish a successful "paid development rights" (PDR) program, which together could protect farms and forests.

Finally, protecting the Mattawoman, and preserving Charles County’s rural character, is a necessary step in sustaining and amplifying heritage tourism and the vibrant largemouth bass recreational fishery.


Who’s in charge? The people are!

Because the above improvements to the Comp Plan remain on the drawing board, it is possible that the elected Board of County Commissioners, who have final say, could still prevail in ensuring a brighter future for Mattawoman, and for all citizens. Elected officials are accountable. But people must speak up!

Clearly, a strong public interest in protecting Mattawoman, and with it the quality of life for present and future citizens, is essential.

Please contact us to learn what you can do to help:

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A Comprehensive Plan, using Charles County’s 2013 extreme pro-growth draft as an example. This example is based on a sewer/septic plan submitted by a lobby for land speculators. The Maryland Department of Planning said of it: "We were surprised to find that this draft reverses many policies that support land conservation as well as smart growth principles."

Impervious cover collects stormwater and can add toxic pollutants (including "thermal pollution") before flushing the brew into our rivers and streams.

School crowding is commonplace in Charles County, so students are shuttled among trailers for classrooms. Crowding also leads to jammed hallways, lunch times that start in mid-morning, and an atmosphere where discipline is difficult to maintain. 

A toxic algal bloom in Mattawoman Creek is a sign of excess nutrient pollution.

State guidelines for a Water Resource Element are available here.

Task force report analyzing the Mattawoman ecosystem, and making dozens of land-use recommendations. The report is available here.

A proposed Tech Park for explosives manufacturing next to schools in the village of Bryans Road would level forest, and degrade prime tributaries and Chapman State Park