Oppose Code Home Rule

By now each Calvert County household has received a mailing concerning the ballot initiative, Code Home Rule, on which you will vote Tuesday. Many citizens have told me they found it confusing. This letter attempts to explain the real story behind code home rule.

* Why Now? Why is this on the ballot? In 2002, the Board of County Commissioners requested authority from the General Assembly to impose a new tax (real estate transfer tax). This tax would add up to a 0.5 percent tax, or $1,000 to $2,000 to closing costs (depending on the house price). The delegation members, Dels. George W. Owings III and Anthony J. O'Donnell, said closing costs were already very high, and the delegation on a 5 to 1 vote, declined to sponsor the bill to give the commissioners the authority to impose the tax.

The taxing authority was again requested in 2003, with the correct assumption that it would again be rejected. It was. Checks and balances in action, protecting your interests.

The BOCC was unhappy with the refusal, and discovered that if the county's form of government were code home rule, it would no longer have to go to Annapolis in order to impose the tax. Thus, the code home rule initiative was spawned.

It was not because the form of government was broken, and it was not a groundswell from citizens who wanted a change. It was about being told no on a tax initiative. Remember this point. It's important, because it's where the idea was really hatched.

* Checks and Balances. The commissioner form of government has checks and balances, as described above, between the BOCC and the state delegation. The commissioners act in both legislative and executive capacity. That is to say all the authority is in one entity, compared with charter governments, where there is a county council and county executive. Therefore, the participation of the delegation acts as check and balance.

Under code home rule, the delegation is removed from granting certain authorities (such as certain taxing authorities), and the check and balance is no more. This hybrid form is neither fish nor fowl. Simply, it is a bad idea.

* Bonding (borrowing) Authority. Under the commissioner form of government, we have to go to Annapolis annually for authority to bond (borrow) money for capital projects, such as libraries and schools. Requests for legislation are now submitted to the delegation in a comprehensive list, and the commissioners must look at the range of requests and prioritize them when they are submitted.

Under code home rule, we could pass bond bills throughout the year, absent specific information as to what other projects might require funding later. Basically, code home rule gives the BOCC a blank check to incur debt. It is important to remember that, because it is your money.

* The Process and Procedure. Rather than make a motion for some action, commissioners would, under code home rule, have to get a bill drafted to be presented for consideration. No longer would we make a motion, which either passes or fails with a simple majority, which is easy to understand and simple in practice. And effective.

Under code home rule, county staff (probably the county attorney) would take requests from five different commissioners to draft bills. Given the current county attorney workload, I am pessimistic that this more convoluted method would result in efficiencies and could be handled with existing staffing.

* Who has Home Rule? Charles County just moved to code home rule. Prince George's County has charter home rule. If Charles and Prince George's have these forms of government, I do not find this to be a persuasive argument. They are not counties I wish to emulate. Which do you prefer?

The bottom line: Code home rule (1) strips the checks and balances from the system, (2) gives the commissioners additional taxing authorities, (3) is a more complicated process and (4) gives the commissioners unlimited bonding (borrowing) authority.

Knowing what I do as to how this initiative came about and what it would do, I urge voters to vote no on code home rule for Calvert County at the ballot box Tuesday.

Linda L. Kelley

Calvert County commissioner

Owings

Editor's note: Letters stating similar views against code home rule were received from Beverly Rasmussen, Grace Rymer and jointly from Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell and former delegate George W. Owings III.

Back Home Rule Measure

To the voters of Calvert County: Please vote for adoption of code home rule Tuesday. I am an attorney who has advocated since early 2002 for home rule in our county. I live in a part of Owings that was subject to legislative redistricting where two Prince George's County delegates would represent us in the General Assembly. At that time, I felt that it didn't make sense that two people from outside our county, even though they are fine delegates, should make our local laws. The Court of Appeals has since redrawn the map and now another part of Calvert County is represented by two delegates from Prince George's County.

In 2002 when I first started studying this issue, I contacted Susan Shaw, then a candidate for commissioner, who agreed that home rule should be explored. Once elected, she approached her fellow commissioners about the idea.

Several people have said the commissioners have an ulterior motive for putting the code home rule referendum on the ballot. They say that because the commissioners did not receive the requested transfer tax, they want code home rule. You can see that Commissioner Susan Shaw was involved in code home rule even before she was elected.

Furthermore, an individual working on the code home rule issue for the county called me last spring to ask for clarification about the transfer tax. I . . . only wish to point out that the commissioners did not even know about the transfer tax authority until midway through the process of formally exploring code home rule.

Code home rule would allow local control of local issues. There are several checks and balances in place that would prevent commissioners from saddling us with debt and taxes and otherwise running things amok. Every piece of local legislation would be subject both to public hearing and voter referendum. Second, the General Assembly still controls local legislation over a class of code counties. Our class is known as the Southern Maryland class. Third, the commissioners are elected officials who will not endanger their reelection by making unpopular decisions. If they do, your checks and balances come every four years.

The county literature about code home rule indicates that Calvert would gain four new taxes. In actuality, the only new taxing authority that we would gain under code home rule is the transfer tax of up to 0.5 percent. Our commissioners already have the school and agriculture excise taxing authority. The food and beverage sales tax only applies if we build a convention center in a resort area.

The myth that only big counties have home rule needs to be dispelled. Five rural counties in Maryland have code home rule (Allegany, Caroline, Kent, Queen Anne's and Worcester), and three have charter (Wicomico, Talbot and Dorchester). Also, most of the so-called big counties that have home rule were rural at the time they adopted their home rule status.

It's not like code home rule government hasn't been tested. Kent County has been a code county since 1970, and the sky has not fallen. I interviewed the county attorney in Queen Anne's (code since 1990), who explained how much more efficient his job has become because each piece of local legislation follows the same procedure in a code county. Under a commissioner county, the procedure for any limited local legislation varies widely, depending on the enabling statute.

Please vote for this historical change for Calvert County. Vote for adoption of code home rule this Tuesday.

Rose C. Crunkleton

Owings

Wrong Way on School Sites

For 20 years, St. Mary's Countians have asked our county officials to establish policies and regulations that would ensure the survival of our rural heritage. After countless hearings and public meetings, the comprehensive policy document "Quality of Life in St. Mary's County -- A Strategy for the 21st Century" was adopted in the late 1990s. At best, this document represented a compromise between the people's request for rural preservation and land development interests. But most of the people welcomed this document with open arms. Since that time, we have witnessed the erosion of policies that would have protected our rural heritage.

Repeatedly, we have witnessed the easing of restrictions on isolated commercial businesses, which allows for expansion of non-rural land development in predominantly rural locations. The many rural marinas are an example of this. (In fact the county commissioners will hold a hearing Nov. 8 for two more of these requests.) We witnessed the upzoning (under the guise of "small area plans") of specific properties, which also increased the encroachment into rural areas. Callaway town center is an example of this.

These examples point out a trend away from the goals and policies of "A Strategy for the 21st Century." Also promised in this document were quality-of-life issues such as smaller classroom sizes, infrastructure expenses confined to growth areas and rural roads that would stay uncongested and sleepy.

The latest threat to St. Mary's County's rural heritage began a couple of years ago when our county officials lowered the bar on school congestion. They raised the maximum allowable enrollment from 103 percent of capacity to 107 percent. Perhaps the most damaging aspect of this move, after the obvious loss of education potential of each and every child, is the fact that development interests were allowed to build another round of homes without pressure to pay for schools. If they had been told "no, we don't have any seats in the schools," then the developers would have been forced to pay for new schools or for land to build schools -- as the policies stated in "A Strategy for the 21st Century" called for.

Now our leaders are wheeling and dealing for "free" land to build vital new schools. Again they turn away from the approved policies and are looking to build schools in the rural areas. If they have their way, Indian Bridge Road and St. Andrew's Church Road will be four-lane boulevards by 2018. And tie-ups like those on Route 235 and Chancellor's Run Road will spread into this rural area.

What happened to asking the land development interests for land set-asides for schools? The builders of First Colony and Wildewood offered, and both were refused. Maybe a school at these sites wasn't ideal, but had the county accepted the land, officials could now trade it for other more appropriate parcels.

The Potomac River Association has a long history of championing better school environments and greater student achievement. We are not opposed to building new schools and, in fact, we have worked to locate appropriate parcels for schools in the development districts. Ten years ago, the 300-acre Pembrooke property on Willows Road was suggested to county officials as a possible school or parkland site and could have been purchased at a reasonable price. (It recently was appraised for five times that selling price.) More recently developers of Willows Apartments, a development whose approval was dependent on the change to 107 percent schools capacity, could have been urged to set aside land for a school. And the California development Woods at Myrtle Point still has a couple of hundred acres near Route 4 that could provide for a school. But the county approved this controversial subdivision without any specific request for school set-asides and therefore has no leverage today for negotiating a deal.

The bottom line is that the county needs to abide by the policy of building schools in the development districts. Building in the rural areas -- whether it be on Indian Bridge Road or some other rural road -- is just part of the ongoing thievery of the St. Mary's County citizens' right to a rural quality of life.

Bob Lewis

Potomac River Association

Lexington Park

Save Site From Schools

As lifelong residents of Indian Bridge Road, we would like to share some background on how the state-owned property on Indian Bridge Road was purchased starting more than 30 years ago. Land owners near and around the St. Mary's River watershed area were approached about selling their property or parts thereof to protect the watershed, to allow hunting, to build two reservoirs, and to protect Great Mills from flooding. Some were willing sellers, some were not. Those not willing were threatened that their property would be condemned and taken. It has helped the flooding problem somewhat and has protected the watershed, and is used as a large managed hunting area controlled by the Department of Natural Resources.

In 2002 a new Comprehensive Plan for land use in St. Mary's County was implemented. A lot of thought was put into the development of this plan. The intent is to protect the rural character of the county and encourage development within the development districts. Prior to 2002, the Indian Bridge Road area was in the Lexington Park Development District (LPDD), but the LPDD was deemed too large by the state. Because this area was mostly rural and in an environmentally sensitive part of the St. Mary's River watershed, it was taken out of the LPDD and placed in the Rural Preservation District (RPD).

Now the Planning Commission is considering the addition of two properties off Indian Bridge Road for inclusion back into the Lexington Park Development District: a portion of the state-owned land on the east side for the proposed elementary school and property on the west side for the proposed Williams Run Development. If this is allowed, public water and sewer could be run to these areas.

Why would any consideration be given to changing the boundaries when just two years ago the decision was made to exclude the property in and around the St. Mary's River watershed area for the reasons stated above?

Further, the Lexington Park Development District has over 40 percent still available for development.

The proposed elementary school site is in the Rural Preservation District, for which the preferred use of the land is agriculture, not building(s). The proposed Williams Run Development land is currently zoned residential low density (RL) in the RPD, which means one house per acre is allowed.

This land may be environmentally constrained as it sits at the headwaters of the St. Mary's River and may or may not be developed without public sewer.

If owners want to develop their land, it should be done following the current Comprehensive Plan rather than changing any boundary to accommodate such development. Other citizens in the immediate area have had to abide by the regulations of the current Comprehensive Plan.

The original proposed elementary school site, and we must say original -- as the 836-acre tract of land is just west of this site and the hope for that property is for a complex of schools (six buildings), including athletic fields and is also in an environmentally constrained area at the headwaters of the St. Mary's River -- looks like an ideal location for an elementary school. However, when you look within, one can certainly see the deeper reason for retaining the land for the purpose intended when it was purchased starting 30-plus years ago.

We cannot believe that out of 40 potential school sites in St. Mary's County that the only suitable site is on Indian Bridge Road.

Why not reveal to the public the 40 potential sites and the reasons they have been found suitable or unsuitable? We understand the critical need for schools, but land purchased by the state for the benefit of the citizens of St. Mary's County should be respected as such, as it enhances the quality of life for all.

Educate yourselves on the Lexington Park Development District Plan and attend the public hearing at 6:30 p.m. Nov. 8 in the Center Hall of the Southern Maryland Higher Education Center at 44219 Airport Rd. in California.

Evelyn Bean Norris Family

California

No Field of Dreams

My wife and I are Charles County residents. Before we moved here from Texas two years ago, we went online and were impressed with what we saw on the Charles County Web page. We were able to see the commissioners' visions and plans for the future. We were excited to build in Hughesville. We liked the area, and we were glad the county had a Comprehensive Plan to preserve the "rural character." We thought we did our homework.

The commissioners no longer follow that plan. Just in our area, in the past year they have approved the Chaney gravel pit and proposed a baseball stadium down the road. With the addition of 200 dump trucks each day from the gravel pit and a baseball stadium less than a quarter-mile away, the chance of the Hughesville Bypass relieving congestion is bleak.

Fast-tracking plans for a stadium without the benefit of a citizens advisory board is irresponsible. This is more than just a Hughesville concern. The spot zoning that is happening in Hughesville may soon be in your community. We must hold our county officials accountable for their decision-making and how it affects us. . . .

The community's needs must always supersede the commissioners' wants. The difference is clear. We need updated schools, improved roads and high-quality jobs to improve life in Charles County. We do not need entertainment.

The Economic Development Commission and our county officials are violating the very nature of the Comprehensive Plan. This "field of dreams" is not found in the County's Comprehensive Plan and it is not in our vision for the future.

Douglas and Mary Wilcox

Hughesville