Charles County’s planning department is awaiting next month’s release of a report on economic conditions in Bryans Road to help it develop recommendations for the future of the Watershed Conservation District in western Charles County.
The report, which is being prepared by the county’s Economic Development Department, will look at everything from demographic and socioeconomic changes in the county’s far northwestern corner to trends in the area’s retail, commercial, and residential markets and their implications for economic development there.
The report will also discuss the importance to the county’s economic future of the Maryland Airport, which was sold last year along with several surrounding properties for $2.5 million to PSM Holdings, LLC of Potomac following the bankruptcy of its previous owners.
The Bryans Road area has been rocked by high-profile retail closures and departures in recent years. The Bryans Road Shopping Center on Marshall Hall Road has struggled to retain or bring in new tenants, though last month a new spa and wellness center opened there and earlier this week the owner announced a Mediterranean grill and a thrift store will be opening soon there.
In a recent incident that garnered media attention from up the road in DC, the county recently went to court to enforce an injunction to prevent the opening of a purported strip club in the former Mama Stella’s restaurant near the shopping center.
“We want to assess the current condition … in Bryans Road and what impact that the WCD zoning may have had on it,” county redevelopment director Taylor Yewell told the Board of Charles County Commissioners during Tuesday’s open session.
“We think it’s very, very important to look at the residential market and housing trends over the last five years,” Yewell said. “Are they up? Are they down? I can tell you they’re up now.”
With regard to the Maryland Airport, Yewell explained, “We have a lot of perspective on various visions that were brought forward for Maryland Airport before it was sold last year, and we’re going to present those. We think that’s very important because that really informs what the market truly is for the lands around the airport.”
Yewell said that, as the closest general aviation airport to the no-fly zone that surrounds the District of Columbia, the Maryland Airport has a “strategic location” that “garnered a lot of interest from not only domestic investors but foreign investors as well.”
Charles Rice, the county’s assistant chief of planning, told the county commissioners that the EDD report would help them with their decisions about what, if any, changes they will want to make to the controversial Watershed Conservation District zoning that encompasses almost 9,500 land parcels covering 35,000 acres in the western half of the county.
“I think the information that you’re going to hear [in the EDD report] is … significant enough to help formulate the big picture that you’ll need,” Rice told the commissioners.
The impact of the WCD on local residents and businesses was a key campaign issue for both Commissioners’ President Reuben B. Collins II (D) and District 1 Commissioner Gilbert Bowling III (D) during the 2016 election campaign.
Perhaps the most contentious element of the WCD zoning requirements is the requirement that residential units be limited to one per 20 acres, which is also the minimum lot size. Property owners have also expressed concern that the WCD zoning would negatively impact their property values.
Jenifer Ellin, the director of the county’s fiscal and administrative services department, said that data from the Maryland State Department of Assessment and Taxation showed that, overall, the value of properties zoned as WCD rose 6.6% between January 2017 and January 2020, lagging a percentage point behind the property values of county parcels not within the WCD. Commercial residential and apartment properties in the WCD both fell during that time, but collectively they represent only 11 parcels.
District 2 Commissioner Thomasina Coates (D) and Commissioners’ Vice President Bobby Rucci (D) both asked Rice to come back to the commissioners with details about a series of amendments that the previous board of commissioners added to the WCD legislation without input from either the county planning commission or the public, including increasing the size of the encompassed area.
“I think some of them were very vindictive against certain people in the county,” Rucci said of the amendments that were added. “And I remember distinctly, I was very upset after that … vote. It was like, 22 [amendments], boom.”
District 3 Commissioner Amanda M. Stewart (D) urged her fellow commissioners to balance the economic development of the western part of the county with the need to preserve the environment. According to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, the environmental benefits that county residents receive from the county’s forests and wetlands would cost county taxpayers over $577 million annually to replicate using non-natural alternatives. In terms of such “ecosystem services” per acre, Charles County’s natural resources rank third in the state.
“We have a responsibility to leave a Southern Maryland waterways … ecosystem for our children and grandchildren to come that they can be proud of,” Stewart said.
Stewart also encouraged the board to focus less on new development and more on repairing and upgrading existing infrastructure in the areas of the county that have already been built up.
“We need to be responsible and use those funds to fix the existing water and sewer [systems] that are failing in our county,” Stewart said. “I leave you today with this … I challenge my colleagues to understand that I have a belief that over the 10 years [of the comprehensive plan cycle] we should focus our revenue, our monies to fix the infrastructure that is failing in Charles County. That is what I believe our focus should be on.”