Board of Public Works approves expanded Zekiah Rural Legacy Area

The Maryland Board of Public Works has approved a proposed expansion of a land conservation region in the center of Charles County that will allow the county government and land preservation trusts to leverage state and federal funds to preserve privately owned property, bringing to a successful conclusion a process that began last summer.

The three-member board, which consists of Gov. Larry Hogan (R), Comptroller Peter Franchot (D), and Treasurer Nancy Kopp, voted unanimously during their Oct. 21 virtual meeting to approve the county’s request to add nearly 30,600 acres to the Zekiah Watershed Rural Legacy Area, nearly doubling its size. The expanded conservation region will now extend from the Prince George’s County border east of Route 5 through Bryantown, Dentsville, and Newburg, to Rock Point.

The new extension encompasses the portion that extends south of Route 6.

Extending the Zekiah RLA to the Wicomico River “makes it very important from an ecological standpoint for preserving [land around] the Chesapeake Bay,” Charles County Administrator Mark Belton told TLR in a recent phone interview. “That’s really the heart of the the agricultural community in the County.”

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.

Although the county has yet to receive an official notice of the approval from the board, the outcome of the vote was made public in the annotated agenda of the board’s Oct. 21 meeting.

Charles County was one of five counties to which the board granted approval to expand existing rural legacy areas, along with Calvert, Cecil, Queen Anne’s, and Washington counties. The board also approved $20 million in RLA grant awards for the 2021 fiscal year, of which $2 million was unused funds rolled over from the previous fiscal year.

The county kicked off the public process for the expansion last summer, holding public information sessions and hearings before the planning commission and county commissioners. Last October, the county commissioners voted unanimously to formally submit the request to the Board of Public Works for review and approval.

County planning staff told the public and the commissioners that they were seeking the expansion because interest was waning among landowners within the existing boundaries for selling conservation easements for their properties, while several landowners south of the existing rural legacy area in Allen’s Fresh and Cobb Neck were interested in selling conservation easements to their properties.

Belton told TLR that County Assistant Chief of Planning Charles Rice would likely begin reaching out to interested landowners soon to let them know about the state’s approval of the expansion and to inform them about the process for selling conservation easements on their properties under the Rural Legacy Area program.

County sees environmental justice benefits in expanding Nanjemoy RLA into Watershed Conservation District

The approval of the Zekiah Watershed RLA follows an interesting recent development in the effort to create a new rural legacy in the western part of the county. At the Oct. 19 meeting of the Charles County Planning Commission, Rice announced that based on public feedback, the planning department was proposing to expand the area to be encompassed by the proposed Nanjemoy-Mattawoman RLA by an additional 14,000 acres extending north from Port Tobacco Road to the town boundary of Indian Head. This would increase the total area of the proposed conservation region by a little over a third, and would include some land zoned for the Watershed Conservation District.

One of the reasons for the proposed enlargement, Belton told TLR, was to help preserve the county’s contiguous forest lands, which make up a significant portion of the land parcels in western Charles County.

“If you’re going to do a single good thing for the environment today, it would be to plant a tree, right?” Belton said. “But planting trees and having an actual established forest are two different things. As opposed to a similar amount of [newly planted] trees … the established forest by far exceeds the ecological value.”

A recent proposal to construct a solar farm in western Charles County to supply renewable energy to Georgetown University ultimately fell in part due to objections over the amount of forest that would need to be cleared in order to make room for banks of solar panels.

The other reason for expanding the Nanjemoy-Mattawoman Rural Legacy Area, Belton said, was environmental justice. The majority of property owners within the boundaries of the Zekiah Watershed RLA are white, while most of the property owners in and around Nanjemoy are Black.

During the public review process for the Zekiah RLA expansion, many of those who testified asked why the county planning department had chosen to prioritize an expansion of the Zekiah RLA instead of acting on a recommendation in the 2016 Comprehensive Plan to create a new RLA in the western part of the county. They urged, and the county commissioners ultimately agreed, that approval of the Zekiah expansion be made contingent on undertaking a plan to develop a Nanjemoy-Mattawoman RLA proposal.

“By having an expanded Zekiah [RLA] and a second rural legacy area, not only are we improving the environment by protecting ecologically sensitive areas, not only are we preserving our traditional natural resource industry, but we’re also doing it in a more equitable way to serve a larger representative portion of our community,” Belton said. “Because of our new focus on equity in Charles County Government and the national discussion of it, it’s something that … is part of our decision making process here.”

In July, the county announced the appointment of former Fannie Mae diversity director Charmaine Brown as the county’s first Chief Equity Officer.

Belton noted that ecological justice has not typically been a factor in rural legacy area planning until now.

“Some folks who live in the expanded portion [of the Nanjemoy-Mattawoman RLA] probably have been concerned that some of their economic opportunity was taken away with the Watershed Conservation District being imposed,” Belton said. “This could potentially give them an opportunity to sell an easement to the state that they hadn’t had before, and therefore ease some of that concern for folks in that particular area.”

The extension’s proximity to Naval Support Facility Indian Head will unlock additional funding from the U.S. Department of Defense 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 to help limit development near military installations to prevent incursions or disturbances during operations, testing, or training.

The county planning commission is scheduled to hold a virtual public hearing on the amended proposal for the Nanjemoy-Mattawoman RLA on Monday, Nov. 2, at 6:00 p.m.

Belton, who served as the state’s secretary of natural resources under Hogan prior to joining the administration of Commissioners’ President Reuben B. Collins II (D) as county administrator, said that, of the many financial tools available to the state to leverage land conservation, the Rural Legacy Area program was — and remains — his personal favorite.

“Not only [is the program] well funded, but it is a permanent easement, not a fee-simple purchase,” Belton explained. “You can get more bang for the conservation buck.”

illustration: Charles County Government