It is apparent that the Talbot County Council does not want to reexamine the circumstances by which it granted the developer of the 2501-unit Trappe East subdivision a green light to proceed (Resolution 281)—even though changes were made to the closely examined sewer system plans after the County’s review. But why not? You tell me.
Petition 21-01 before the Council asks that Resolution 281 be rescinded “without prejudice.” That important phrase means that as soon as the developer permits the County to review and evaluate the significance of the changes he made to the plans, he can immediately reapply. If the changes were truly of no great significance (as no doubt he claims), surely he would get the same approval as before, no-harm no foul. So why the big worry?
It is not that I nor the other 140 petitioners (to date) somehow know that the changes made to the plans are of huge consequence; we have no such expertise. But neither do we–or the County Planning Commission or Public Works Advisory Board or Council–know they are not.
Surely they are not trivial and the claim frivolous, or Judge Kehoe would not have remanded the matter back to MDE for new review and a new public hearing. And it defies any adult’s life experience to believe that the developer, on his own initiative, made changes that would enhance operations, improve the functionality or reliability of the plant, that would make it safer for public health and the environment—that would cost more money.
It was the Choptank Riverkeeper and ShoreRiver consultants that flagged the switches made between draft and final permit, and omissions in the application that hindered knowing the impact of a million gallons of effluent being sprayed on some days onto the ground just above the Choptank. The next review, with experts in front of MDE and a new public hearing, will answer those questions.
You would think the County Council, that also sits as our Board of Health, would want to know what the changes were, would want to confirm that they were only minor and inconsequential—if that’s the case.
I have the sense that the County Council does not even want to talk about Resolution 281 again for one (or a combination) of three reasons. First, they do not want to remind the public how iffy was its passage last August by a 4-1 vote (Ms. Price apparently very conflicted, but Messrs. Callahan, Divilio and Pack clearly in favor). In making that decision they approved the biggest, most impactful project in Talbot County history over the 5-0 recommendation against it by the Public Works Advisory Board (“PWAB”), and the narrowest of votes in favor by the Planning Commission. (The Council even permitted the developer’s attorney to make a special, last minute pitch to the Council the night of the vote without rebuttal, though it was not a public hearing.)
Second, maybe they’d say it’s just too much trouble for the County to go back and look again, given that it was a nine-month process to evaluate Resolution 281 the first time (mostly due to Covid interruptions.) But isn’t this the biggest thing to hit Talbot County since that proposed oil refinery at Wade’s Point in 1953? I have watched the PWAB deliberate, and the indefatigable Planning Commission who month after month weigh details on small issues no one hears about (last month, a bike rack at a new restaurant). I do not believe for a second that either the Planning Commission or the PWAB would regret the opportunity to make sure that–as to this behemoth of a project, the proverbial 800-pound gorilla—they got it right, that on their watch the developer was not cutting corners in ways we’ll only see years from now.
Finally, maybe the Council is just too close to the developer and his team (Mr. Showalter the attorney, and Mr. Rauch the engineer/partner). Maybe the dynamic and context (fifteen years on this project alone) have created some pressure on the Council to deliver. The agents of Mr. Rock have a major, continuing presence in Talbot County, year after year, project after project. The Rauch engineering firm is well respected (as is Mr. Rauch) and the County often contracts with that firm to do work, interfacing through the same County engineer and staff as were reviewing the Trappe East project. In a totally legitimate and mundane manner, Mr. Showalter works every day with practically every staff member in the County and would not be doing his job if he did not have a good, friendly relationship with every Council member. (In fact, the former County Attorney who just resigned in January now works for Mr. Showalter’s firm.) These kinds of ties, this cultural integration, are often central to moving projects forward, here and everywhere else on the planet.
To the last point, as the Star Democrat highlighted, when my petition to rescind Resolution 281 without prejudice was raised at the May 11th Council meeting, Mr. Pack interjected “We worked very diligently with both the Trappe planning commission and developer to come to a consensus on how the parcel would be built out. And Resolution 281 did that.” But is it not the duty of the County Council to look out for the thirty-eight thousand citizens of Talbot County, rather than worrying about the developer, or even that small town that voted to light the fuse? (Did you know that, had seventy-five votes gone the other way in 2003, there’d be no threat to Talbot County from Trappe East?)
If the MDE review and public hearing demonstrate that the developer’s after-the-fact changes to his plans for sewerage at Trappe East are inconsequential, then “without prejudice” means he can come back in and get the County’s go-ahead legitimately. But the County should accept Petition 21-01, should rescind Resolution 281, and we should get to the bottom of the matter. To express your support for Petition 21-01, email firstname.lastname@example.org to that effect.
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.