Focus On Talbot: Lakeside Turning Point Tomorrow?
The Planning Commission meets in a work session tomorrow at 2 P.M. in the Bradley room to discuss open questions regarding Lakeside. Because of logistical issues this may be its only opportunity to take action to rectify problems inherent in the 2020 approval of that enormous subdivision. Accordingly, I sent to the Commissioners on Friday the following letter in an effort to make plain the reasons why immediate rescission of Resolution 281 is the right course to protect Talbot County.
Dear Chairman Councell and Commissioners:
I know very many citizens of Talbot County join me in thanking you for the serious interest and quite extraordinary effort you have shown regarding questions about the proposed Lakeside wastewater treatment plant, and other issues related to that development. Just as Lakeside is unique, so is the Planning Commission’s current situation.
Lakeside will have an unparalleled, generational impact on Talbot–essentially a new town straddling Route 50 whose wastes could impact our waters, sensitive areas, and public health enormously, as it will every other aspect of our County over the next fifty years. Similarly, Commissioners have a truly unprecedented opportunity–and challenge–in selecting the right course of action at this difficult moment.
I understand this to be the context: (a) two Commissioners are scheduled to be out of town for weeks; (b) a great pile of information purporting to answer the Commission’s important questions sits undigested; (c) MDE is months away from issuing a Final permit (the September hearing and comment period being merely steps to that end); and (d) Mr. Lesher has announced, and directed the County Attorney to introduce, a resolution to rescind 281 “without prejudice,” triggering the recommendation process with the PWAB and Commission both. Oh, and the developer, who is the party that obtained a less-stringent-than-represented permit last December, is moving earth every day.
You know I and some 228 other citizens advocate a particular course of action—rescission of your finding in June, 2020, that Amendment 1 to Resolution 281 is consistent with our Comp Plan, together with a recommendation to the County Council that Resolution 281 itself be rescinded—and I would like to make plain why.
First, we all must recognize the simple fact that until MDE issues an actual Final Permit (not a “Tentative Determination,” which is exactly what the so-called Draft permit was last year, the one that was watered down, unknown to us all), neither the Planning Commission or anyone else can know important facts about what will be built at Lakeside. Will the Final permit require a lagoon to hold 60 days, 75 days, or 90 days of wastewater? Will the plant spray just 540,000 gallons on any day (which the soil study seems to suggest should be the limit), or can it spray huge volumes just so it averages no more than that in a year? It matters not a whit what is today on the developer’s plans, as logic and experience suggest that down the road, only what the permit requires will be ultimately be built. All questions are not answered by citing ENR treatment standards; other issues are very important.
Commissioners cannot take the easy path—just assume whatever MDE approves will be fine—because the Commission’s direct responsibilities to Talbot citizens are quite different than MDE’s concerns. MDE does not concern itself with our Comp Plan at all. And, as a specific example, MDE takes a policy position that spray irrigation results in zero nutrient load, and so it need not be concerned with nutrients at all, or a system’s impact on TMDLs and our tributaries. And perhaps MDE can assume all plants operate exactly as designed all the time, notwithstanding Talbot’s real-world experience of decades-long failures at the Preserve and Martingham (and recent failures in Trappe itself). Commissioners’ decisions impact the health and local waters of their fellow citizens in a way that cannot be abdicated to “others,” even MDE.
Secondly, though the Commission has taken very seriously the questions that have been raised, and has been swift to action, the considerable information it has gathered is completely undigested, even if it’s all come in. (The public, by the way, has not been able to access the information at all.) If you let time and logistics dictate that a decision be made without that information being properly reviewed in a reasonable way, then the process, well intentioned or not, would actually be a charade, discrediting and not strengthening the County’s land review processes.
In a word, this is what you have been asked about the Lakeside project and its critically important waste water plant: is it consistent with our Comp Plan? And today, that is literally unknowable. What does “it” mean? Until MDE generates that Final permit—certainly not before November—who could answer that question?
Commissioners did not know the MDE permit was going to be changed when you found consistency in June of 2020, but now that you do know that—and that other changes are in the offing in coming months–the appropriate reaction is also to change—that is, to rescind “without prejudice” that finding. (“Without prejudice” of course meaning that after the facts are known, the Applicant can immediately come in for reconsideration.) This need not hinge on new information concerning the existing Trappe plant, which may or may not ultimately have a bearing.
The whole idea of the recission of Resolution 281 (and the finding of consistency that is its prerequisite) was precisely to provide the County with the time needed to properly assess all of the information that bears on these issues. If at your August 16th meeting you rescind “without prejudice” your earlier finding of necessity, the world will not end—you simply will have made the honest statement that the basis for your earlier finding has changed and until you know what is going to happen at Lakeside, you are in no position to make any finding.
Mr. Councell, as you often say, the Planning Commission’s powers are limited, and it is the County Council who calls the shots in almost every case. One of two exceptions is this very issue of “consistency,” where by statute the Commission alone holds the power—and the responsibility—to act for the benefit of our citizens. As you’ve said, whatever the Commission does, the Council “takes it from there,” and the Commission is merely advisory. (In this case, the appropriate advice on Mr. Lesher’s coming resolution would obviously be to rescind 281—and down the road, when open questions have been answered, the developer can come back in for proper reconsideration.)
Finally, I would like to reflect on what inaction by the Commission means. If you rescind the consistency finding, you buy the County time to evaluate. If you do not, then the green light given the developer last year on questionable pretenses remains unaffected. Many people and organizations (including perhaps the County or even the Planning Commission itself) may submit “comments” or questions or opinions to MDE in the upcoming public hearing and review. Being direct about it, so what? Whatever MDE decides—relying often on the developer and Town’s opinions too—will be the Final permit, and that is all the developer must conform to. Other than that, whatever the Town and the developer agree to do is what will happen.
Talbot County, as you know, has nothing to say about Lakeside but this. Choosing not to rescind its finding of consistency is to pass up the County’s one and only opportunity to influence this “biggest project ever.” All would hope that Commissioners do not ultimately rue a missed opportunity.
Thank you for your consideration of these thoughts.
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.