Southern Maryland officials keep legislative requests light

Southern Maryland lawmakers will return to Annapolis for the 431st legislative session of the Maryland General Assembly on Wednesday without any big-ticket requests from local officials, who instead are seeking permission to clean up blight and fund projects on their own.

Commissioners in Charles and St. Mary’s counties have asked their respective delegations for the authority to place liens on nuisance properties so they can fund their restoration.

Charles County commissioners President Candice Quinn Kelly (D) said that abandoned and neglected properties have become a significant issue since the foreclosure crisis and that the board modeled its request off a similar “clean and lien” program in Prince George’s County.

“In a county now that’s becoming urban in places and certainly suburban, you can’t have aesthetically pleasing communities if there’s no way for you to enforce a standard,” Kelly said. “If you want people to move into a community, that’s what they’re looking at; they’re looking at what the community looks like.”

The St. Mary’s ordinance would give property owners the chance to abate the nuisance but allow the county to step in if no action is taken.

“I think the nuisance ordinance is a major piece,” St. Mary’s County Commissioner Todd Morgan (R) said. “We’re trying to revitalize sections of the county, and it only takes one bad apple to spoil the barrel.”

The most significant request made by Calvert County commissioners is permission to issue $33.8 million in bonds to fund an array of projects, including expansion of the county’s emergency communications system and the Appeal waterline, rehabilitation of the Parris Oaks pump station and improvements to Route 231 and Skipjack Road near the county industrial park.

Calvert commissioners also asked for an amendment to a state law allowing local liquor boards to impose fines for license violations and issue permits for special events.

They also opted to retain the county’s three election districts, rejecting a plan to redraw them into five.

Calvert Commissioner Steve Weems (R) voted to keep the three districts but said he would like public debate on the issue to continue, citing the lack of feedback an advisory board received from voters.

“Me, personally, I would like more input. I think that there’s room for education,” Weems said. “There’s some voter apathy.”

The St. Mary’s commissioners also have asked for $30 million in bonding authority and an exemption for 15-acre farms from new regulations limiting large properties to seven homes on septic systems.

Kelly expressed concern that a zoning map recently approved by the Charles County Planning Commission in step with a new state law limiting growth on septic systems endangers the autonomy Sen. Thomas “Mac” Middleton (D-Charles) fought to preserve for local jurisdictions last session.

Under the law, counties are required to draw and submit to the state maps drawn into four tiers identifying where new construction can be built on septic systems or public sewers. Developers praised the Charles plan, known the “Balanced Growth Initiative” map, but it was met with derision from environmental groups.

Rural lawmakers resisted the bill when it was proposed by Gov. Martin O’Malley (D), worried that it would give the state control over local land use, but Middleton worked with the administration and the Maryland Association of Counties to draft provisions that kept zoning authority local.

“Sen. Middleton . . . really stepped up to make amendments that would allow counties to create a map with tiers to make sure it works for their jurisdiction, but there was certainly an expectation that each county would make a reasonable effort to comply with the law, but when you look at the BGI map that our planning commission approved, it’s a little embarrassing, to be honest,” Kelly said.

The maps, she continued, “give a strong impression that our county is not only not going to come close, we are just absolutely thumbing our nose at the law, so it will be interesting to see what the General Assembly thinks of that.”

The Charles commissioners have scheduled a public hearing on the BGI map for Tuesday.

Middleton said that he has not looked closely at the BGI map but that it is in the counties’ best interest to submit plans that follow the law as closely as possible — not because straying from the law will give the state authority to draw its own maps, but because it will open the plans to lawsuits.

“It behooves the county commissioners to be as balanced as possible,” he said. “My hope is that they will do that and try to get this thing right. The more it follows the intent of the legislation, the better the chance that the tier maps will hold up in court.”

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