Agencies wrapping up connector permitting procedure

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

April showers bring May flowers but will spring flora signal the victory bell or death knell for the final three phases of the cross-county connector?

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Maryland Department of the Environment — the two agencies that must sign off on the four-lane highway that runs from Waldorf to Bryans Road before dirt can turn — are both near the conclusion of their respective permit review processes.

"Basically the county has repeatedly said it has no additional information and we've said ‘fine,'" said Bill Seib, chief of the regulatory branch of the corps' Baltimore District. "We're looking at the information and making a review."

Seib explained that the corps is primarily looking at the "least environmentally damaging practicable alternative," which ensures that if aquatic impacts cannot be avoided at least they are minimized and mitigated.

"We look at any other alternatives addressed [by the county], before any permit is finalized," Seib said. "The county did provide the requested information, the corps acknowledged that, and since that time we've been interpreting any discrepancies and reviewing it in the individual permit process."

Seib said there was no specific timeline for a decision but he anticipated it would come sometime in the spring.

According to the Maryland Department of the Environment's regulatory decision timeline, a decision will be made Dec. 15 or six weeks after the earliest resolution of regulatory requirements.

The addition of the social and economic justification due from the county by Sept. 1 is what will push the permit decision to the holiday season.

"The social justification is the work that the county has done for the last 20 years to show why the road is needed and the role it plays in the mobility of the population, the traffic pattern and transportation efficiency of the western county to Waldorf and La Plata," Commissioner Gary V. Hodge (D) said. "We were not aware of [the request] until we received the revised schedule."

While the commissioners have defended the three-pronged plan for the $47 million east-west connector, standing in the way are acres of sensitive wetland on the last six miles of the road to be constructed between Middletown Road and Route 210.

Because of the environmentally significant landscape, Charles County is required to get a nod from the corps, which monitors open waterways and wetlands, and MDE, which handles issues with nontidal wetlands.

In a January letter to Charles County commissioners' President F. Wayne Cooper (D), MDE Secretary Shari Wilson informed the board members that there were still outstanding Tier II regulation issues that needed to be addressed, along with a May survey of a fourth endangered species of plant — Melica mutica, two-flower mutica grass — and that all remaining information requested by the department would need to be in by March 1.

The tiered regulations are a classification system that identifies the highest quality of Maryland water.

In an August article published in the Maryland Independent, Richard Eskin, director of the science services administration for MDE, said the Tier II level means the state and county need "to do whatever [it] can to minimize the impact" of the road on the environment.

"At the Dec. 9, 2009, meeting the county requested that MDE not delay its permit decision until the completion of the May survey for Melica mutica. The county also requested that should MDE make a favorable permit decision, the permit be issued with a special condition detailing what steps or precautions the county must take if Melica mutica is found along the alignment," Wilson wrote in her letter.

Wilson went on to inform the county that without addressing the endangered species and water quality issues, making a premature permit decision "would be inappropriate."

Charles County Director of Planning and Growth Management Chuck Beall said the county responded on time to MDE's letter requesting the information.

"All the stuff they asked for was prepared in a detailed response," Beall said March 2.

When asked if there was any other additional information the agency would like to see submitted by the county, MDE spokesman Jay Apperson said, "We think we've asked for the information we need to make a decision."

Between now and December the agency will assess the project's purpose and impact avoidance similar to the work being conducted by the corps.

There will also be a response to the endangered species survey scheduled for August — following a Maryland Department of Natural Resources review — and the Tier II evaluation, according to a timeline e-mailed by Apperson. Within the context of the MDE permit process the county has had to ask for a six-month extension, complete three endangered species surveys and been handed an additional decision delay courtesy of the state agency.

As for the field survey to determine the status of the endangered plant, Beall said A.D. Marble & Co. would be taking the lead on the project in May. The Owings Mills-based environmental planning firm has handled the previous surveys for the county connector.

For two years now the county has battled with conservationists and recently has hit resistance at the federal level.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Chesapeake Bay Field Office sent a letter at the beginning of the year to the Army Corps of Engineers recommending it deny a wetland permit to the project.

It was the first time a federal agency took sides against the connector project and the argument was that the county had not provided enough information about direct and indirect impacts on the surrounding environment.

Many critics at the local level have staged protests and submitted testimony during public hearings in opposition to the county's plan. Even Del. Peter F. Murphy (D-Charles) has distanced himself from his fellow representatives who last summer came on board with the commissioners in discussing legal options to fight resistance to the connector.

Others have suggested that had the county performed an environmental impact study when the connector was proposed decades ago the government wouldn't be mired in additional assessments and review.

"We could have been told to do an EIS but we were never told that," Hodge said. "In the absence of that we did a lot of National Environmental Protection Act [requirements] that we feel were tantamount to an EIS."

Proponents of the connector — primarily the five commissioners and the local business community — argue that a connector will better link the two halves of the county with one another, along with providing a much safer alternative to Billingsley Road and a less environmentally intrusive thoroughfare through the Mattawoman Creek watershed.

Anticipated action

Spring 2010 — U.S. Army Corps of Engineers permit decision.

April 2010 — Maryland Department of the Environment review and comment on assessment of project purpose and need, avoidance and minimization of wetland impacts, mitigation, stormwater management controls and impervious surface treatment; review of Tier II Anti-Degradation impacts.

May 2010 — Deadline for county to submit field survey of Melica mutica to MDE.

July 2010 — Deadline for county to submit field survey of Melica mutica to Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

August 2010 — DNR and MDE review of field survey of Melica mutica.

September 2010 — Deadline for county to provide social and economic justification to MDE.

November 2010 — MDE completes review of social and economic justification.

December 2010 — MDE permit decision.

Source: Information provided by Charles County documents, county officials, MDE correspondences and previous Maryland Independent articles.