Nanjemoy-Mattawoman Rural Legacy Area plans unveiled to county commissioners

The Board of Charles County Commissioners voted unanimously on Tuesday to approve a proposal to establish a land conservation region in western Charles County that would allow the county government to leverage state grants for preserving privately owned properties.

The establishment of a Nanjemoy-Mattawoman Rural Legacy Area, which would encompass just over 40,000 acres of property extending from the Potomac River almost to Welcome, had been called for in the county’s 2016 Comprehensive Plan and the 2017 Land Preservation, Parks, and Recreation Plan.

A rural legacy area designation opens up access to additional sources of funding that local governments and land trusts can use to purchase conservation easements from landowners. An RLA designation works similarly to other types of preservation designations like Priority Preservation Areas.

County Assistant Chief of Planning Charles Rice told the commissioners that county planning staff have been working with Preservation Maryland, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, and the Charles County Land Preservation Advisory Board for over a year to develop a final configuration for the RLA. The final proposal encompasses nearly the entire Nanjemoy peninsula, with the exception of several parcels around the intersection of Baptist Church Road/Liverpool Point Road and Port Tobacco Road that are zoned Village Residential and Village Commercial, and extends to Nanjemoy Creek in the east and Mattawoman Creek to the north.

The proposed boundaries do not intersect or overlap the Watershed Conservation District, the controversial zoning passed in 2016 that affects nearly 9,500 parcels of land on 35,000 acres in western Charles County.

The Maryland General Assembly established the Rural Legacy Area program in 1997, and every county in the state has at least one RLA. Charles County’s first one, the Zekiah Watershed Rural Legacy Area, was approved by the state in 1998. Last year, the county commissioners approved expanding the existing Zekiah RLA to nearly double its current size, a request that is expected to come before the state Board of Public Works for final action this fall.

Rice said that Preservation Maryland scored the Nanjemoy peninsula on a variety of criteria including natural resources, agricultural lands, and active forestry timberlands, as well as the county’s planning and land-use strategies, cultural and historic resources, proximity to the Chesapeake Bay Critical Area, and eligibility for U.S. Department of Defense funding through its Readiness and Environmental Protection Integration program.

The REPI program provides local governments with funds that they can use to purchase development easements from landowners in order to limit development near military installations to prevent incursions or disturbances during operations, testing, or training.

“Typically, [rural legacy areas] are rich in natural, agricultural forestry, scenic, cultural, and historic elements that are of high value to the locality,” Rice told the commissioners. “You’ll see that the heart of Nanjemoy really lights up through that [Preservation Maryland] exercise.”

District 1 Commissioner Gilbert Bowling III (D) praised Rice and county staff for their work preparing the RLA designation.

“I think it will be a tremendous asset for that side of the County to improve the environment over there,” Bowling said. “It will also provide opportunities for funding sources for the western side, which is long overdue. Some of the landowners over there will have an opportunity to be compensated for preservation efforts. And I just think … it shows our commitment to preservation and to environmental stewardship in the county.”

Commissioners’ President Reuben B. Collins II (D) agreed with Bowling, adding that the Nanjemoy-Mattawoman RLA had become a priority for his administration.

During a series of public hearings last year to discuss the expansion of the Zekiah Watershed RLA, residents and preservation organizations encouraged the commissioners to fulfill the recommendations in the comp plan and the parks and rec plan to create an RLA in the western part of the county. In recommending approval of the Zekiah expansion last September, the county planning commission stipulated that the county should prioritize planning for the new RLA this year.

The commissioners voted 4-0 to approve beginning the public process required for the granting of a new RLA. District 2 Commissioner Thomasina Coates (D), whose district encompasses the proposed RLA, was not present.

Rice will brief the planning commission on the proposal next month. A public information meeting is scheduled for August, and public hearings are planned for September and October. The county planning department has until February 2021 to submit its final proposal to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, and hopes to have a decision by the Maryland Board of Public Works that October.

TLR will be following the progress of the Nanjemoy-Mattawoman RLA through the review and approval process and will keep readers informed of its progress.

illustration courtesy of Charles County Government