I urge the Charles County commissioners not to approve the two rezoning requests for Swan Point. These rezonings are not in the best interest of the county.
There is no factual evidence to support U.S. Steel's contention that this development of its property offers a net economic gain for the county. Whatever U.S. Steel projects for income and for the county's infrastructure costs needs to be disclosed for public scrutiny. It must withstand the litmus test of the light of day. The commissioners should not assume an overly optimistic sales pitch by any developer and should not burden taxpayers for the general welfare and economic gain of a major corporation. The economics undoubtedly do not include the loss of the environment that this massive new development will cause and should be a factor in any decision.
Smart Growth means managed growth without negative outcomes for the existing citizens, the environment and the taxpayer. There is an opportunity at Swan Point to have additional growth, but as presently planned this development will harm area citizens with overcrowded roads, schools, loss of local water supplies, and further degradation of the surrounding water and natural habitats. Only phased and measured growth should be approved by the county, and all infrastructure costs should be entirely at the expense of the new development and developer. This development should certainly not be subsidized by current county taxpayers. Any economic deals the commissioners are considering to aid this development with infrastructure cost sharing should be presented to county citizens. The commissioners should conduct a hearing on this matter.
Rezoning the "horse farm" property from Agricultural Conservation (AC) to Waterfront Planned Community (WPC) is not acceptable given that this parcel was deeded in 1992 to be AC zoned in perpetuity in exchange for a significant relaxation of the Critical Area rules for Phase 1 of the Swan Point development. This land use variance was granted then, and thus buffers were reduced and denser development was allowed in sensitive waterfront areas. Such land use comes with permanent damage to the environment forever. The lost habitat is forever, and the continuous pollution from these homes will not stop. To allow this land dedicated to conservation to be rezoned WPC now will double the developer's benefits and ignore the environmental harm already caused. The "horse farm" rezoning should be denied. A deal is a deal.
The other requested rezoning should also be denied unless a smaller impact development is proposed. There is an imbalance in the proposed growth and the environment -- with the environment the loser in a big way. The U.S. Steel and developer Brookfield Homes presentations speak of seeking this balance and display wonderful images of Swan Point and birds and water but provide no facts to support how their plans are in balance with nature. Their reliance on 100-foot buffers is hardly even minimal protection of the environment. Neither bird habitat nor fish spawning grounds and wetlands that now exist will remain close to the same quality with just 100-foot buffers along roads and homes that are placed in the midst of these natural preserves. U.S. Steel and Brookfield Homes will not be present to witness nor be held accountable for the demise of the environment after they have achieved their short-term business objectives and move on. They do not live here as we do.
The commissioners should understand that their citizens have long memories and will hold them accountable for failure to protect the environment. I am glad to see that Commissioner Candace Quinn Kelly has taken a strong leadership position regarding the environment and hope that the other commissioners will soon join her.
The proposed development of Weir Creek Village (actually Swan Point proper) should be denied. What has been proposed is clearly analogous to cutting off the Golden Goose's head. Once this marsh and creek are further destroyed there will never again be such a beautiful place as this. This marsh not only defines what is good about Swan Point but also defines the best of Charles County.
The dredging of Harbor Village for the benefit of wealthy boat owners and fancy restaurants and hotel rooms should be denied. What equation can possibly balance this destruction of the environment with this growth? It has been suggested that there is a need for an upscale development such as Annapolis or Solomons Island. It may be a good idea for revenue purposes but at what environmental cost? Water pollution at all such giant marinas for the boating business and associated development is undisputed. So why would the county commissioners wish to destroy what they have been entrusted to protect? Denial of this commercial development by not rezoning this area will ensure environmental protection, and this is what citizens are asking. This commercial development is probably the only aspect of the Swan Point plans that has a chance of offsetting the cost of infrastructure associated with 1,500 additional homes. The price for this is too great.
Further, growth in the existing areas of Swan Point consistent with the original development agreement should be evaluated. This development should be allowed to proceed only if the failing sewage system is replaced with a non-polluting land treatment system. I am encouraged by the recent views expressed by Commissioners Wayne Cooper, Al Smith and Kelly reflecting concerns about the discharge of the sewage plant effluent into the environmentally damaged Cuckold Creek. That degraded water body is a clear testimonial to the past poor decision-making and a lack of understanding of the true impacts of development associated with the first phase of Swan Point. Neither the Maryland Department of the Environment nor U.S. Steel ever guaranteed that this discharge would not harm the creek; they only projected that it would not be too bad. Time has proven their forecasts to be inaccurate. The creek's condition is nearly dead. U.S. Steel should not be rewarded with rezoning that enables further profiteering at the environment's expense.
Building a cleaner sewage plant is promised but is not guaranteed to be better. The alternative land treatment discharge will have zero nutrient loading to the creek, which is 100 percent better than what is being discharged. There is a chance that the creek can recover if the pollution introduced is stopped.
Many citizens in the county and area are willing to stand with the commissioners if they make a tough and unfavorable decision regarding the U.S. Steel and Brookfield Homes requests. The decision should be in favor of the citizens and the protection of our precious environment. Andris Bilmanis Jr. is a professional engineer who lives in Hughesville. This commentary was condensed from a letter he sent to the Charles County commissioners.