Public gets first chance to ask about new rural legacy area

Charles County Assistant Chief of Planning Charles Rice listens to a question by a local resident during Wednesday's public information session on the the Nanjemoy-Mattawoman Rural Legacy Area. Photo by Paul Lagasse

Charles County residents had their first opportunity earlier this week to offer feedback on a proposed land conservation region that, if approved, would fulfill one of the key preservation recommendations in the 2016 Comprehensive Plan.

As previously reported in TLR, the Nanjemoy-Mattawoman Rural Legacy Area would encompass just over 40,000 acres of property extending from the Potomac River almost to Welcome. 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. Both the county’s 2016 Comprehensive Plan and the 2017 Land Preservation, Parks, and Recreation Plan called for the establishment of a rural legacy area in that part of the county.

Earlier this month, the Board of Charles County Commissioners voted unanimously to approve the proposal as presented by County Assistant Chief of Planning Charles Rice. On Wednesday, Rice and program manager Cathy Thompson held an informal public information session to hear what residents had to say about the proposal.

Around 20 people attended the in-person meeting in the auditorium of the county government building, spacing themselves apart and wearing masks in accordance with COVID-19 health guidelines. The live venue offered a welcome opportunity for a more interactive and personalized discussion than a virtual meeting.

“Typically these [rural legacy] areas are designated because they have special natural agricultural forestry, scenic, and cultural or historic elements that are of high value to the locality,” Rice explained.

Working with Preservation Maryland and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the county identified the entirety of the Potomac peninsula as having a worthwhile concentration of high-value natural resources, productive farms, contiguous forest lands, and segments of several Tier II streams, as well as natural and cultural resources such as the Mallows Bay National Marine Sanctuary, Rice explained. The final proposal excludes several parcels around the intersection of Baptist Church Road/Liverpool Point Road and Port Tobacco Road that are zoned Village Residential and Village Commercial.

Rice pointed out that a Rural Legacy Area designation does not change the zoning or the subdivision characteristics of properties within its boundaries.

The state approved Charles County’s other RLA, in the Zekiah watershed, 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.

“If this designation ultimately is approved, it’s essentially access to another funding source for land preservation,” Rice said. “It could reduce competition with other land preservation applicants. … Being able to offer another source of funding in an area will reduce competition and increase someone’s chances of being funded.”

One resident asked how the county settled on the size of the proposed RLA, noting that the current boundaries do not encompass more of the Mattawoman Creek watershed. “One of the things that we’ve found is if you try to designate too big of an area, the state doesn’t like that,” Rice explained, noting that, as with the Zekiah RLA expansion, the county can always approach the state later to request extending the boundaries.

Charles County Planning and Growth Management Department program manager Cathy Thompson, right, talks with a local resident following Wednesday’s public meeting on the proposed Nanjemoy-Mattawoman Rural Legacy Area.
photo by Paul Lagasse

Rice noted that the county anticipates that many residents living within the boundaries of the RLA will be interested in receiving money from the county in exchange for agreeing to put their lands into conservation easements. The county would accept applications during a set period, score the applications, and get approval from the Board of Charles County Commissioners to divide the available grant funding among the highest ranking applications as the basis for the county’s financial offers to the property owners. All agreed-to restrictions would be included in the county’s land records.

Rice said that ranking factors have not been firmly established yet, but would likely include things like the productivity of the land, proximity to other conserved properties and to contiguous forest cover, and the owner’s asking price and willingness to negotiate a discount.

Although there is no minimum parcel size to be considered eligible for a conservation easement in an RLA, Rice emphasized that the county will likely give more favorable weight to larger properties as they offer more development potential per dollar of grant money spent to acquire the easement. “There’s really not a lot of value in spending funding to preserve [a smaller] property because there’s not much you can do with it anyway,” Rice said.

Rice noted that the Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation stipulates a minimum parcel size of 50 acres for its conservation easement program, unless the parcel adjoins preserved property. Under MALPF, owners also have to extinguish at least one property development right.

The public will have two opportunities to submit comments on the proposed RLA as well as to testify during public hearings. The first opportunity will be before the Charles County Planning Commission on Monday, Sept. 21, and the second will be before the Board of County Commissioners at a public hearing to be scheduled in November.

If the Board of County Commissioners approves to move the proposal forward, the county planning department has until February 2021 to submit its final proposal to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, after which it hopes to have a decision by the Maryland Board of Public Works that October.

TLR will continue to report on the progress of the Nanjemoy-Mattawoman RLA through the review and approval process at both the county and state levels.

photo: Charles County Assistant Chief of Planning Charles Rice listens to a question by a local resident during Wednesday’s public information session on the the Nanjemoy-Mattawoman Rural Legacy Area. Photo by Paul Lagasse