It’s simple, really. The fog has cleared. No one can be confused any longer, and each of our five Talbot County Council members is left with a straightforward, and very personal, decision: do the right thing…or not.
I think we should step back and give them all a little room. Can we empathize, just for a moment? Human nature being what it is, changing one’s position, once dug in (once perceived to have dug in!), is not an easy thing to do. It’s damn hard. It takes courage, and it’s beyond a lot of people, whatever their role in life, whatever the question. For a sitting legislator, all the more so.
But I bet it’s also so very rewarding, when ultimately one realizes the payoff of doing right: knowing one has stepped up. Head high, spine straight. Tending to the message, regardless of the messenger. Looking out for 38,000 constituents (most of whom are not paying attention, and so will never thank you), instead of special “people in the room” (who knew…who have known all along…who are the ones who misled you…and who will be very upset).
It’s been demonstrated by a couple of Council Members within the year that one can change one’s mind, and be proud of it. Because it’s the right position to take for our community.
But for the newly revealed facts of the matter, Lakeside would be an especially hard case, given that it’s been in front of us all (due to Covid extensions) for two years now. Everyone knows who supported Lakeside, who didn’t. But the facts newly revealed on December 13th—the very SHOCK of the thing—actually make this pretty straightforward, if we give folks some room, show some understanding and not just anger.
What are those facts, the new information about the Lakeside approvals that make this a simple decision?
The Rocks family, from Vienna VA, who are behind that huge subdivision, obtained passage of Resolution 281 from the Council under false pretenses. That’s it. Full stop.
Falsehoods. Misrepresentations. Lies–though I do not know from where and when, exactly, and ascribe no blame, because I am not an investigator and have no proof or evidence of who was just innocently confused, versus who purposefully lied. But that does not matter to us now: the foundation of R281 was unquestionably FALSE.
(Incidentally, there is nothing whatever wrong with the developer being from VA—but why has that been virtually hidden behind a façade of local sponsorship? And there is absolutely nothing wrong with a big, dramatic, Billion-Dollar deal—if it’s all legit, if it is done on the up-and-up.)
FALSEHOOD #1: Lakeside was officially classified by Talbot County way back in in 2002 as “S-2” meaning the County determined back then it should be developed by 2007—and here we are in 2020 reviewing it….so unfair!” But ENTIRELY FALSE. The County never classified Lakeside to get sewer at all—in fact, in 2004 the Council turned Lakeside down flat. Our current County Council members did not know that, I believe, until December 13th. Like the rest of us, they had been misled, duped, by the claim that Lakeside was “S-2” for nearly two decades.
FALSEHOOD #2: “Obviously,” Lakeside had been approved in all respects about 15 years ago, because MDE had even issued permits to construct sewer way back then. So again, “What are we waiting for? It was ok then; our 2020 approval process is proforma, eh?” FALSE! MDE had indeed issued permits in 2006, but they were invalid, improper, not-by-the-book. (I’ve been criticized for calling them illegal, which seems impolite and harsh. True, but as the character and quality of life in Talbot County is at stake, in this case no euphemism will do. Evidence shows those permits were issued illegally.)
And again, our County Council members did not know that either, I believe, until December 13th—like the rest of us, they had been misled, duped.
In 2020, every one of the members of the Talbot County Council was presented with the falsehoods above—as were all five Planning Commissioners and the public. The Big Lie shaped the entire review and approval of Resolution 281, the green light for the biggest, most disruptive project ever contemplated in our cherished and special County.
So how do we all feel about the gutting of any pretense of integrity in the way Talbot operates—at least for the big boys? It’s ok, just one of those things? Horse is out of the barn? Ship has sailed? C’est la vie? But just wait till you want a ten-foot variance for a fence or something.
Nevertheless, don’t get angry…not yet. Put yourself in a Council person’s shoes. Who likes to acknowledge they were had? Makes one look gullible. Disinterested. An easy mark. No one likes that, so all of us—you and I too–would want to duck it. But there is no dishonor in being the one lied to. It is the other way round. But there is dishonor in denying a clear falsehood, out of an unwillingness to look it in the eye, perhaps out of fear of looking bad. Mark Twain wrote about that in Huckleberry Finn.
Here’s another one you should know about: the whole idea of connecting Lakeside to the existing plant was slipped past both the County Council and Planning Commission unseen. It was not in the legislation first introduced, but came in by an amendment two months later that, the record shows, no one understood at the time. Just another trick in Rocks’ game of three-card-monte—but with devastating consequences to our environment.
And referencing the Planning Commission, you know, don’t you, that on November 3rd it rescinded its ok of R281, finding a central element—the hookup of phase 1 of Lakeside to the grossly inadequate existing plant—to be inconsistent with our Comp Plan? So far that determination has been ignored, even though it is a legal prerequisite for Lakeside—the project must “conform” (MD Environmental Article 9-511) to our Comp Plan, and no one seems to care.
(Contrast this with the action last week of the Caroline County Commissioners who stood behind their Planning Commission’s recent action to rescind a decision when it was found that THEY were lied to. The Caroline Commissioners made a unanimous and forceful declaration that Caroline County was not going “to be had,” and backed the Planning Commission 100%.)
The reaction of many of the citizens who are paying attention to Lakeside (many aren’t of course), is anger. I too have heard the calls to “just sue the buggers.” Well, that unwelcome step may not be necessary, and internecine conflict can be avoided in Talbot County, if we have faith that Council members will indeed get to the right result for the community if we give them some room: simply rescind R281, without prejudice.
The world will not end with rescission. The developer, Rocks, will fight it tooth and nail claiming they are “vested.” But the fatal flaw there is that vesting requires “clean hands” and actions taken “in good faith.” That would be a problem. (Vesting is why rescission seems the only solution for Talbot County; a brand-new amendment to the water and sewer plan, by contrast, would be judged by a different standard that might, indeed, permit Rocks to proceed.)
And lastly, we must point to the wrong legal advice—laughable, really—that Council members have received, that no matter what, the Talbot County Council is helpless, “its hands are tied” because MDE (a party complicit In chicanery) approved R281. As expressed by the author of a recent Letter to the Editor of the Spy, that argument was “grasped like a life preserver by a drowning man.” But the Council has a solid legal opinion (see below) that it indeed has the power to rescind, which surely it can follow now that it realizes that rescission is what Talbot needs.
And when the Council does rescind R281, the world will still turn on its axis. Rocks will simply have to re-group and, once the dust settles, bring Lakeside back to the County on honest terms so all—the Planning Commission most especially— take a clear look, untainted by falsehood and misrepresentation.
Council members should do—I think they will do–the right thing. We should give them a little bit of space to work it out. It’s going to be their legacy, one way or the other.
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.