Procedural, economic, environmental questions dominate comments at Maryland Airport hearing

Maryland Airport sign

The first public hearing on a set of proposed amendments to the county’s 2016 Comprehensive Plan drew criticisms that focused not just on the potential environmental and health impacts of expanded operations at the Maryland Airport near Bryans Road — which the amendments are designed to permit — but also questioned whether the Charles County Planning Commission was violating state law in holding the hearing when they did.

Several of the people who spoke during Monday night’s virtual public hearing pointed out that according to the Land Use Article of the Annotated Code of Maryland, jurisdictions are required to forward copies of any proposed amendments to their comprehensive plans to “relevant State agencies and adjoining local jurisdictions for their review at least 60 days prior to the planning commission public hearing.”

The county’s planning and growth management department, at the behest of the Board of Charles County Commissioners, is proposing changes to four chapters in the comp plan that would change the land-use categories of several properties around the Maryland Airport to allow them to be rezoned from from their current Watershed Conservation District zoning to a category that would be “compatible with general aviation airports,” according to the county staff’s presentation.

In addressing the question following the public testimony, county staff assured the planning commission that another public hearing was planned before that body once the proposed amendments had been submitted to the appropriate state agencies — referred to collectively as “the clearinghouse” — and neighboring jurisdictions in accordance with state law.

Deputy County Attorney Elizabeth Theobalds explained that the planning commission could consider Monday’s public hearing as an information-gathering exercise to help inform the county’s application for approval of the comp plan amendments. County Assistant Chief of Planning Charles Rice added that he believed the planning commissioners were “doing their due diligence” by soliciting public input first.

“I think had we sent the staff version of the draft amendment to [the] clearinghouse without going through a public hearing process first, you would very likely have heard from commenters tonight that, ‘You’ve already made up your mind … what the plan’s going to look like, you didn’t want to hear from the public and you’ve already sent it for a 60 day review,'” Rice said.

Several callers also expressed concern over what they saw as a lack of clarity about what the properties would ultimately be rezoned as. County planners are discussing a spectrum of options ranging from an “overlay zone” that would preserve the WCD zoning while also allowing for limited commercial and industrial development, to an entirely new zoning category that would be a hybrid of light industrial and business park zoning with additional airport-specific features.

“The zoning of those properties around the airport cannot be changed until the comprehensive plan is changed to support that endeavor, so the plan needs to be amended before the zoning can be changed,” Rice explained. “That zoning will come after the comp plan has been amended. It will be a separate process that will look much like this with public hearings that go through the planning commission and the county commissioners.”

“It may be proposed as some type of overlay zone, or it may be proposed as a new zone, that all has not been worked out yet,” Rice said.

One criticism that was not addressed by planning commission members or the county attorney during Monday’s meeting was an accusation by Newburg resident Howard Dent that planning commission chair Wayne Magoon had violated county guidelines by publicly voicing his support for the proposed amendments at the outset of the Nov. 2 planning commission meeting, at which county staff formally introduced its proposal to amend the comp plan.

“I hope that the rest of the planning commission members have not already made up their mind, as the chair seemingly has, and that this application can get a fair and impartial evaluation,” Dent said.

At the outset of the hearing, planning commission member Richard Viohl disclosed that he was associated with two organizations that might submit public comments on the issue — the Conservancy for Charles County, of which he is a board member, and the Smarter Growth Alliance for Charles County, of which he has been a financial supporter — but that he was not involved in preparing comments and has not discussed the issue with either organization. None of the board members voiced concern that Viohl would be able to be “fair and impartial in [his] consideration” of the proposed amendments.

Although over 50 people had signed up to speak during Monday night’s virtual hearing, only 17 people ended up offering their testimony by phone. Of those who called in, only one spoke in favor of the proposed amendments.

“When you look across the state of Maryland, airports are huge economic drivers,” said Port Tobacco resident Bill Dotson. “There’s such a buzz in Charles County for the last several years about congested roadways; it’s clear that if we had more jobs in Charles County, that we wouldn’t have to put so many people on the road leaving Charles County.”

Dotson, who said he’d like to construct a light-manufacturing plant near the airport, accused “a small group of radical environmentalists that don’t even live in our county that are mostly retired that have zero interest in economic development” of thwarting investment in the western part of the county.

Critics of the proposed airport rezoning argued that in addition to environmental impacts from increased impervious surface runoff and potential health impacts from increased air pollution from air traffic, industrial development was not a viable economic driver for the western part of the county.

“When you look at the bass fishing that goes on [in the Potomac River tributaries], the commercial fishery, blue cats being caught out of [Mattawoman] Creek and other areas in Charles County, all the recreation that’s going on, the paddling opportunities, particularly with Mallows Bay, this is the economic future of the County,” said Dean Naujocks, the Potomac Riverkeeper. “You really should be thinking about how can we create infrastructure that builds around … Mallows Bay and all the rich natural resources that are in this region.”

“Passive recreation of the natural areas in Charles County is, is the economic driver of the future, and must be taken to consideration with any changes to the comprehensive plan,” said Waldorf resident Karyn Molines.

Scott Sewell, conservation director for Maryland Bass Nation, added that overdevelopment near Piscataway Creek has drastically reduced bass stocks in that waterway and warned that something similar could happen to Mattawoman Creek.

On the question of the impact of greater stormwater runoff into the Mattawoman Creek from new impervious surfaces at the airport, planning commissioner William Murray argued that the state’s stormwater management regulations require new construction to emulate, to the maximum practicable extent, what is called “woods in good condition,” meaning that they should be able to retain and absorb a comparable amount of rain runoff as a typical forest floor.

Hughesville resident David Kanter argued that no one has put forth a solid economic case for expanding the airport. “If it’s so great, why isn’t PSM Holdings, the airport owner, paying for it?” Kanter asked.

PSM Holdings, LLC, of Potomac, Md., purchased the Maryland Airport for $2.5 million in February, 2019, after the airport’s then-operator declared bankruptcy when PSM foreclosed on two of the airport’s properties.

“We entertained probably a half a dozen prospective buyers that came through [the] economic development [department], which is probably one-third to one-half of the actual prospective buyers for the property,” county redevelopment manager Taylor Yewell told the planning commission. “In our conversation with the current owners, they have … expressed the fact that some of those buyers are still interested in being at or near the airport. They don’t necessarily need to own the general aviation airport to fulfill their business objectives.”

In its recent economic assessment of Bryans Road, the county’s economic development department spelled out proposals from three other potential buyers: a local aviation group that proposed to expand the airport to accommodate private jets “in the mid-size and heavy jet categories,” a biotechnology and pharmaceuticals firm that proposed building a hub for human transplant organs, and an “investment company located in mainland China” that proposed an initial investment of $8.4 million to establish an international pilot training school, an international exchange center, an exhibition and trading center, and more.

The planning commissioners voted unanimously to keep the public record open for comments until Thursday, Dec. 17.

photo: Paul Lagasse/TLR