Op-Ed: Sewage Ponds, Strip Malls and Sprawl: Time for a New County Council Majority by Tom Alspach

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In recent days some have been critical of perceived “negative advertising” regarding candidates for the Talbot County Council.  But current Council members should expect to have their records scrutinized, and should be compelled to run on those records – and not rely simply upon colorful billboards and full page headshots with sloganeering.  

Those of us who have followed the actions of the current Council majority have real reason to doubt a commitment to the preservation of Talbot County’s rural character and fragile environment. This is demonstrably so when one considers Council majority actions promoting development in our wetlands, commercial strip malls on our roadways and sprawl throughout our countryside. Talbot voters should think about this record, and vote accordingly.

SEWAGE PONDS

Early in the current Council term Jennifer Williams, Corey Pack and Chuck Callahan, over the objections of Laura Price and Dirck Bartlett, adopted new legislation allowing construction of open sewage ponds, and other development, entirely within the County’s non-tidal wetlands.  

This assault on our groundwater quality arose when a property owner managed to obtain a permit from MDE permitting construction of a “bermed infiltration sewage pond” – an open sewage pond in reality – entirely within the statutory non-tidal wetland buffer on land near Royal Oak.

The Talbot County Code required a variance from the non-tidal wetland 25 foot setback.  The Board of Appeals denied that variance and the developer appealed to the Talbot County Circuit Court, which affirmed the BOA’s denial.

But Williams, Pack and Callahan stepped in and adopted legislation that eliminated the required 25 foot setback from non-tidal wetlands, not only for development permitted by MDE, but also for “development activities that do not require a permit … from the Maryland Department of the Environment.”  

So open sewage ponds and all other development activity in Talbot County now are permissible not only 25 feet outside our non-tidal wetlands, but entirely within and upon those wetlands as well.  Board of Appeals authority to prevent such development in the wetlands is gone. Williams, Callahan and Pack, over the vehement opposition of Laura Price and Dirck Bartlett, eked out a victory for developers with no concern for our fragile local environment.

STRIP MALLS

No development activity would better reflect a lack of commitment to preservation of our rural character than would a proliferation of strip malls along local roadways.  Recognizing this, our County Comprehensive Plan for decades has stated: “The County shall prohibit strip commercial development along County and State roadways.”  

But during the Comprehensive Plan rewrite, Jennifer Williams and Corey Pack expressed a different vision:  

Mr. Pack: “I guess I am with Jennifer, I have a problem with 2.4, the word prohibit.  I was looking for softer wording.”

Ms. Williams: “I think you just go back to what Mr. Pack said … the County shall discourage strip commercial development along county and state roadways and leave it at that.”

Mr. Bartlett: “How about prohibit?”

Ms. Williams: “We don’t want to prohibit it.”  

Laura Price and Dirck Bartlett vigorously opposed the Williams proposal to water down the historic prohibition on strip malls along county roads, and for good reason.   But Williams wasted no time in having drafted Bill 1305, an ordinance that proposed to create a Planned Redevelopment District (PRD). That “District” actually was the entirety of Talbot County, and would have applied to every parcel of five acres or more, everywhere, and to any smaller parcel if a majority of the Council decided its“redevelopment” would provide public benefit.  

The PRD legislation authorized the Council to approve redevelopment for any use, regardless of the use limitations in the underlying zoning district.  A residential lot, for example could be “redeveloped” for commercial use, or a commercial office building for a roadside strip mall.  No public sewer connection would be required for the redeveloped lot, nor would the existing height limits, setbacks, landscaping or signage requirements apply – instead all of these would be decided, again, by the Council majority.  While they did not succeed in having Bill 1305 adopted, this effort laid bare the attitudes and goals of Williams, Pack and Callahan regarding the future commercial development of Talbot County.

SPRAWL

The primary goal of our Comprehensive Plan is to preserve the rural character of Talbot County.  This goal is intended to be realized through the principle of “Smart Growth” – that future residential and commercial growth should be directed into and around the incorporated towns, on public sewer, while our outlying farm fields remain open and small villages retain their historic identity.

But Jennifer Williams, with the usual unwavering support of Chuck Callahan, does not embrace this notion of Smart Growth.  Indeed, during the Council’s rewrite of the existing Comprehensive Plan, she, with Callahan’s support, proposed to delete all references to “smart growth” from that planning document.  Elimination of smart growth principles would help promote Ms. Williams’ other proposal for “strategically selected” new growth centers:

Ms. Williams: “At the tail end of the first sentence, under ‘General Land Use Plan,’ I would like to see where it says ‘in proximity to the incorporated towns,’ I would like to see added to that, ‘or strategically selected new centers.’”

Mr. Bartlett: “What would that be?  Explain what that means to you, ‘strategically selected new centers.’  What does that mean?”

Ms. Williams: “That means if someone comes to us and wants to put in a small rural mixed use PUD, it would allow that to happen.”

Mr. Pack: “Once we draft the PUD, which we haven’t even drafted yet.”

Ms. Williams: “But there’s every thought that we probably will.”  

Talbot County land use planning has never embraced new “growth centers” in the rural countryside, “strategically selected” or not.  Instead County planning has designated “Future Growth Areas” adjacent to incorporated towns, where sewer would be extended once those areas are annexed.  But Ms. Williams and Mr. Callahan proposed the extension of sewer service into those Future Growth Areas even before annexation occurred so as to promote intensified residential and commercial growth in the county.

In addition, Ms. Williams, with the support of Chuck Callahan and Corey Pack, has targeted our rural villages for more intense new development.  All three proposed to add new “Village Growth Areas” to the Comprehensive Plan, which areas would be designated by the Council majority in the future.  Corey Pack took particular interest in intense development for the village of Royal Oak, speaking in favor of a density of four units per acre for that community.  Laura Price and Dirck Bartlett aggressively pushed back noting that such density would triple the size of the village – to 340 dwelling units – within the ten year planning period.  

WHAT NOW?

The good news is that most of the alarming agenda of Williams, Callahan and Pack, documented above, did not make it into the final revision of our Comprehensive Plan or Zoning Ordinance.  But County voters should not therefore be complacent. The initiatives described here were thwarted only because of vehement resistance by Laura Price and Dirck Bartlett, coupled with overwhelming public opposition that posed a real political threat for the Council majority.  

But Dirck Bartlett will not be returning to the Council, and Republicans hope to replace him with Frank Divilio who, like Chuck Callahan, primarily will provide a supporting vote for Jennifer Williams’ endeavors.  Indeed, Mr. Divilio has stated that he does not want to be elected to the Council unless Ms. Williams is reelected as well. Given the opportunity to express his views on the issues by the non-partisan League of Women Voters, in their published Voter’s Guide, Mr. Divilio, like Mr. Callahan, but unlike all the other Council candidates, provided “no response.”

There would be many opportunities for Ms. Williams, with support from Callahan, Pack and/or Divilio, to reopen and promote the same philosophy of limiting reasonable restrictions on commercial and residential development that was on display during the rewrite of the Comprehensive Plan.   So for voters committed to protection of our rural countryside and historic small villages, the message should be clear: Re-elect Laura Price, who will continue to fight for that protection, and help her with new Council members who have made their same commitment very clear – Pete Lesher, Keasha Haythe and Naomi Hyman.

Tom Alspach is a local attorney in Easton and serves on the board of the Talbot Preservation Alliance

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