Agritourism, housing relief, tax credit bills included in commissioners’ 2021 legislative package

Ten proposals for state legislation that would address a variety of planning and economic development issues in Charles County cleared their first hurdle Tuesday as the board of county commissioners voted on the proposals that would be forwarded to the state delegation.

Nearly half of the 23 proposed pieces of legislation submitted to the Board of Charles County Commissioners for consideration as part of the 2021 legislative packet dealt with planning and development issues ranging from agritourism and wineries to housing relief and homeowner tax credits. Only one such bill was not included.

Once the legislative package is submitted to the state’s delegation — Sen. Arthur Ellis (D-Charles), Del. Edith Patterson (D-Charles), Del. C.T. Wilson (D-Charles), and Del. Debra Davis (D-Charles) — it will be up to them to decide which of the bills they will submit as legislation during the session, which begins Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2021.

Here’s a quick rundown of the bills related to planning and development that will be included in the county’s 2021 legislative package:

  • A proposal to re-introduce “Charles County – Public Safety – Buildings Used for Agritourism,” which proposes to add Charles County to the list of counties where an existing agricultural building used for agritourism is not considered a change of occupancy that requires a building permit under certain circumstances. Proposed by the Charles County Rural and Zoning Task Force.
  • A proposal to re-introduce an amendment to Section 2-216 of the Maryland Annotated Code’s Alcohol Beverages Article to allow owners of small family farm wineries to also have an ownership interest in a small family owned business establishment that sells alcohol. Proposed by county residents Bonnie Hochman Rothell and Danny L. Rothell.
  • A proposal to provide that Charles County’s disabled veterans who have a military service-connected disability rating of 50% or more may receive a lifetime benefit property tax exemption of 50% of the assessed value of their primary residences within the county. Proposed by the Charles County Commission for Veterans Affairs.
  • A proposal to amend Maryland Annotated Code’s Alcohol Beverage Article to allow the removal of an individual and/or corporate licensee and to hold their alcoholic beverage license inactive or in abeyance until a substitute licensee can qualify to hold the license. Proposed by the Charles County Board of License Commissioners.
  • A proposal to provide a scenic easement tax credit for eligible property tax bills over the life of the recorded easement. Proposed by county resident Michael Leventhal.
  • A proposal to provide mandated rent stabilization for seniors to prevent their rental costs from increasing beyond their ability to pay, in accordance with an annual rent stabilization allowance as determined on an annual basis by the county government. Proposed by Commissioners’ President Reuben B. Collins II (D).
  • A proposal to fund a post-COVID-19 recovery plan specifically for business recovery. Proposed by Commissioners’ President Collins.
  • A proposal to offer research and development funding to businesses in the county that fall within one of the four targeted industries (federal contracting; health services; entrepreneurial and retail; and R&D, engineering, and computing) as identified by the county’s Department of Economic Development. Proposed by Commissioners’ President Collins.
  • Authorizing Charles County to develop regulations that would allow it to impose a fee on residential property owners who lease to residential tenants, including fines for non-adherence. Proposed by Commissioners’ President Collins.
  • A proposal to amend Section 9-310 of the Maryland Annotated Code’s Tax Property Article to allow for implementation of a real property tax credit for county employees and volunteers. Proposed by District 1 Commissioner Gilbert Bowling III (D).

The first two proposals are reintroductions of bill proposals that had been included in last year’s legislative packet. As previously reported by TLR here, here, and here, the House version of the agritourism bill was withdrawn the day before its first hearing over safety concerns. An effort by Sen. Ellis to get the Senate version of the bill through was cut short by the early dismissal of the legislative session due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The delegation did not submit the family farm wineries proposal as a bill last year.

During Tuesday’s discussion, District 2 Commissioner Thomasina Coates (D) asked whether the provisions of the agritourism bill could be handled by the issuing of event permits as a way to ensure that county safety requirements are being adhered to. Bowling pointed out that the provisions in the bill are already allowed in more than half the counties in the state, and in 2019 the Charles County delegation voted to approve the same provisions for both Prince George’s and St. Mary’s counties.

“A lot of farmers are using these events to supplement their income, to help generate income for the farm,” Bowling said. “They’re losing revenue and income outside the county to places like St. Mary’s and Prince George’s [counties] because they can’t do it [here] yet.”

“It’s kind of got me perplexed as to why it was good enough for St. Mary’s and Prince George’s, but not good enough for Charles,” he added.

The vote to approve the inclusion of the proposed bill was unanimous.

The purpose of the family farm wineries bill is to allow winery owners to be able to acquire a separate retail liquor license, in much the same way as Maryland state law allows the owners of pub-breweries to hold both liquor manufacturing and retailing licenses. The Rothells are unable to obtain their second license because they also own The Cove at Cobb Island, which sells wine.

“She wants to continue to sell what she’s able to sell under her license for the establishment, but then also be able to sell what she produces at her winery at the winery,” Associate County Attorney Danielle Mitchell explained. “And right now she can’t have an interest in both.”

Because the proposed changes to the state alcohol laws would affect all the counties, not just Charles, the effort to push it through the legislature would likely be a more involved process than simply creating a single exception for Charles County. It would be up to the delegates to decide whether one of them wanted to sponsor the bill and work it through the legislative process. To that end, in addition to voting unanimously to include the bill in its legislative package, the county commissioners also voted in favor of drafting a letter of support to accompany the proposed bill.

The lone bill related to planning and economic development that was not included in next year’s legislative packet was a proposal by Southern Marylanders for Racial Equality to re-establish a Housing Authority Board that would offer a wide variety of assistance such as repair grants for low-income residents, down-payment assistance for first-time homebuyers, low-interest loans for home improvements, and more. SMRE director Ongisa Ichile-Mckenzie proposed that the board would have an initial budget of $200,000.

The county established a Housing Authority Board in 1991, but in 2016 the Board of Charles County Commissioners voted to dissolve it, arguing that it was redundant because its functions were being performed by county staff in the Housing Division and the Department of Community Services.

“I think what people are looking for … falls under … state law,” said District 3 Commissioner Amanda M. Stewart (D). “I don’t think what they’re asking for is really … what we can do.”

Collins said that he did not believe the county needed new legislation to address housing issues, but suggested that the commissioners meet with the county attorney’s office and housing and social services staff to scope out what the duties and responsibilities of a housing board would cover.

“I’m a proponent for it,” Collins said, “But to be fair, I think we need to hear directly from … staff on the feasibility of moving forward with something like this.” The commissioners unanimously agreed with Collins’ suggestion.

The county commissioners’ legislative package moves next to the state delegation, where Ellis, Patterson, Wilson, and Davis will meet to decide what they will and will not introduce in the 2021 General Assembly session. TLR will continue to track the proposed bills as they move through the legislative process, ultimately to be voted down or passed into law.

photo: Charles County Government