We’ve been played.
Last August the Talbot County Council, on a 4-1 vote, gave the developer of the 2,501-unit Trappe East subdivision (don’t forget the shopping center) a controversial approval that enabled the project to proceed post haste. Resolution 281 amended the County’s Comprehensive Water and Sewer Plan to give about half the project “Immediate Priority” status. Without this, construction of the waste water system—which of course is prerequisite to everything else—could not begin.
The process of approving this Resolution for the developer was grounded in a careful evaluation of the developer’s intentions for this sewage system, particularly important because the system relies on the spray discharge of effluent onto 85 acres of crops located very near Mile’s Creek, a tributary of the long impaired Choptank. (The most recent evaluation shows the upper Choptank to be our only tributary that where metrics are getting worse, and the lower to be impaired by fecal coliform bacteria.)
How did the County evaluate the developer’s plans and intentions for constructing and operating this sewage system? Well, the developer had obtained from the Maryland Department of Environment (“MDE”) a draft wastewater discharge permit in September 2019. Naturally, the County entities charged with evaluating Resolution 281 did so in the context of developer’s plans as set out in this draft permit. The matter was reviewed by the Public Works Advisory Board (“PWAB,” with expertise in wastewater issues) in four meetings in the spring of last year; they recommended against the Resolution by a 5-0 vote.
The Planning Commission also discussed Resolution 281 in three long meetings. I was present for the first, and watched the Covid-era videos as the Commission took testimony and discussed details with the developer’s attorney, Council staff and others such as the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. The record shows that the developer’s intentions for construction and operation set out in the draft permit were the crux of the matter, and the five commissions were very diligent in their consideration of the overall idea and many particular details, no doubt recognizing that important public health issues were at stake. Apparently it was a close call: the Planning Commission (whose recommendations are usually unanimous) voted in favor of Resolution 281, 3-2.
The County Council then held a public hearing on July 16th, and again the sewage system under discussion was that described in the draft permit—what else could the general public and entities like ShoreRivers comment upon? The developer’s attorney did a masterful job in defending the plans for construction and operation of the Trappe East sewage system.
The Council’s meeting on August 11th was not a public hearing, but the date for a vote. Nevertheless, the Council President improperly invited the developer’s attorney to again present his case, hearing from no one else. The Council discussed the matter at some length, three members (but not Mr. Callahan or Mr. Divilio) asked questions of the attorney, and the video shows Ms. Price seemed very much to waiver in her view. When the vote was called, Resolution 281 passed with only Mr. Lesher opposed. The developer had his approval.
Four months later MDE issued its Final Wastewater Discharge Permit, which sets forth what the developer is actually permitted to construct and the constraints on its operation. Guess what. Significant provisions in the Final Permit are different than in the draft permit the PWAB and the Planning Commission and the public and the County Council had reviewed. And it is not me who is saying so.
It was Matt Pluta, the Choptank Riverkeeper who picked up the differences, and ShoreRivers filed a suit in Talbot County Circuit Court highlighting material adverse changes both impacting the environment and risking public health–like changing the discharge formula and reducing the size of the open holding lagoons. (They also noted that required information (a Nutrient Management Plan) had never been submitted, though–contrary to the implications of a recent Star Democrat article–that is not the sole issue.) On April 27th, the Circuit Court granted the plaintiff’s motion and remanded the entire Final Permit back to MDE for additional work over months to come. Only at the end of that process will Talbot County really know what it is that the developer is going to construct and under what constraints he will be required to operate. So I have petitioned the Talbot County Council to promptly rescind Resolution 281. The developer can come back and get a proper approval once we know what is going on and have reviewed it.
I want to add that this is exactly the kind of thing that gives developers a bad name. Get the County’s approval based on one set of expectations, and then save a buck, change the plans a bit (e.g., dig the lagoon’s three feet less deep). No one will even notice.
(And my assessment of all this is from a developer’s point of view: I was in that business before moving to Talbot County in 1995. I spent forty years in commercial real estate, arranging financing, consulting on problem projects, as Conservator of a Savings and Loan for the State, and doing some select development on my own account—projects of which I am quite proud actually.)
Above I frequently referred to “the developer.” It is always reported in the local paper, that the developer is Mr. Bob Rauch, of Rauch Engineering, and he takes a lot of heat. While I don’t doubt that Mr. Rauch is a partner, all other evidence I know of indicates the developer, caller-of-the-shots, is actually Mr. Nicholas Rock of Vienna Virginia—the same developer who years ago built Easton Club–the one wrapped around the abandoned golf course. (Mr. Rocks phone number, for example, is on the “Lakeside” sign on Route 50.). When millions are made at Trappe East, I suspect they are not going to stay in Talbot County, but will flow west across the Bay. I do not know Mr. Rock by the way.
I imagine that Mr. Rock put Mr. Rauch in front for good reason—he is a very highly qualified professional engineer, a well-liked and respected local man who continues to do much for Talbot County in many capacities. (In fact, after starting his career at MDE, he was for some years the Director of Public Works and Talbot County Engineer, so he knows the work intimately.) Similarly, some unfairly criticize Mr. Rock’s attorney, but he is doing his job—and very, very effectively. No doubt he will lead resistance to this Petition.
The Trappe East project is going to be developed in time. Mr. Rock, having engaged the right professionals to advance his plan, struck a deal with the Town of Trappe back in 2005 that cannot be undone. Millions have been spent on fees and on the assemblage. Whether this “Lakeside” job ultimately looks exactly like the current plan or something else a bit more appropriate to Talbot County, it’s going to come.
But it is the duty of our County Council—which also sits as our Board of Health—to exercise its very few remaining powers responsibly, and to stand up for the integrity of our review procedures. Wherever in the County you live, from 404 to the Choptank, from Tilghman to the Tuckahoe, you should consider joining in this Petition—the next kerfuffle could be in your neighborhood.
To join with me, Dirck Bartlett, and many others already signed onto the Petition to Rescind Resolution 281 (Documents here), please send an email to that effect to email@example.com.
Dan Watson is the former chair of Bipartisan Coalition For New Council Leadership and has lived in Talbot County for the last twenty-five years.