Commissioners kick off airport rezoning process

Maryland Airport sign

Charles County planning staff have been given a green light to restart the legislative process for rezoning land around the Maryland Airport for commercial development after more than a year of little public-facing activity.

The Board of Charles County Commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday to allow the planning and growth management department to hold public hearings on its proposal to amend the 2016 Comprehensive Plan to change the land-use designations of the properties from their current Watershed Conservation District zoning to a category that would be “compatible with general aviation airports,” according to the staff’s presentation.

Planning staff were careful to point out that the proposed zoning changes are limited to a handful of properties associated with the airport, and will not apply to other WCD-zoned land.

“We’re focused on just the area surrounding Maryland Airport and changing that land-use designation to … what we would refer to as outside of the fence or outside of what the airport owns itself, to employment and industrial park districts as a land use category,” County Assistant Chief of Planning Charles Rice told the commissioners during Tuesday’s open session.

The process of amending the comprehensive plan involves public hearings before both the Charles County Planning Commission and the Board of Charles County Commissioners, and a review by state agencies and adjoining jurisdictions.

If the changes to the comp plan are approved, the planning department would then have to bring an actual zoning text amendment for the properties before the planning commission for their blessing and then to the county commissioners for a vote.

The land immediately surrounding the airport runway and operations buildings is currently zoned for light industrial applications, with two small adjacent parcels zoned for business parks. In 2016, the then-board of county commissioners approved the rezoning of the surrounding parcels, which were part of the estate of the airport’s founder, Gil Bauserman, to become part of the WCD.

Advocates for increased investment in economic development in western Charles County argued that the zoning change made the airport unattractive to potential buyers. The airport went on the market in May 2017 shortly after Bauserman’s death with an asking price of $4.84 million. After at least one contract is known to have fallen through, PSM Holdings LLC of Potomac, Md., purchased the airport in February 2019 for $2.5 million after calling in liens it held on two airport properties, which triggered a bankruptcy filing by the then-owners, Bauserman Service, Inc.

When it announced the bankruptcy filing, Bauserman Service cited “uncertainty over the zoning and regulatory environment [that] has created difficult circumstances in which to secure new capital or complete a sale.”

Properties Around the Airport Have a Long and Complex History

Efforts to open up the airport properties to development began in earnest in mid-2017, when then-District 1 Commissioner Ken Robinson (D) tasked the planning department with investigating the feasibility of a so-called “overlay zone” for the surrounding parcels, which would allow for limited development outside the uses approved for the base zoning without requiring changes to the county zoning ordinance.

At the time, then-director of planning and growth management Steve Kaii-Ziegler publicly stated that he was unsure if an overlay zone would be the best solution to the problem. Following the sale of the airport, Kaii-Ziegler announced that his department was instead considering establishing a new zoning category that would be a hybrid of light industrial and business park zoning with additional airport-specific features.

Environmental advocates expressed concern about the potential impacts of a tech park on the nearby Mattawoman watershed. At the time, they noted that an industrial park-type operation would likely exceed the 8% cap on impervious surface required inside the WCD and could potentially generate contaminated stormwater runoff.

However, following Kaii-Ziegler’s departure last summer, followed by that of acting director Christina Pompa several months later, the rezoning process appeared to have stagnated, as little more was heard about it at public meetings.

Will the Change Affect the Chapman’s Landing Property?

Prior to Tuesday’s vote, the only significant recent event related to the airport involved a proposal to subdivide Chapman’s Landing, a 50-acre parcel of land near the airport that the state deeded to the county 15 years ago to be developed into a science and technology park. Last November, the county commissioners approved a proposal by the capital services department to carve out five acres from the parcel for reasons that were not made fully clear at the time (and as far as TLR has been able to ascertain, remain so).

The history of Chapman’s Landing is rife with controversy and rancor. The parcel was one of several included in a public-private partnership that was established to develop a large science and technology park, but which folded in 2012 — controversially requiring the county to buy back the land from the developer for $6.4 million, though at the time the land had been valued at only $3 million. The county then placed a majority of the reacquired land into a conservation easement that is held by the Conservancy for Charles County, over vigorous objections from pro-development advocates — minus the 50-acre Chapman’s Landing tract, which was exempted at the last minute at Robinson’s recommendation.

Rezoned to WCD in 2016, Chapman’s Landing was among the properties being considered for rezoning back to light industrial or business park uses along with the airport properties when Kaii-Ziegler and Pompa left. It is unclear whether the proposed rezoning of the airport properties approved on Tuesday includes Chapman’s Landing, but given the past controversies surrounding the parcel, TLR believes it is unlikely.

The private airport south of Pomonkey is the state’s closest non-commercial airport to Washington, DC, a fact that pro-development advocates have argued make it an ideal hub of economic development in the western part of the county.