State delays connector decision

Agency decides Dec. 1 is more realistic to get county's answers

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

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Depending how you look at it, a decision by the Maryland Department of the Environment to extend until Dec. 1 its ruling on a building permit for Charles County could mean delaying the inevitable, or it could be the extra six months the county needs to make its case.

In a letter addressed to Chuck Beall, county director of the planning and growth management department, the county learned it will have to wait until the holiday season before it will learn whether the state approves its request for a grant to build across Mattawoman Creek and associated wetlands.

Charles County requested a six-month extension on Nov. 21, 2008.

As stated in MDE's May 21, 2009, comment letter to the county, "the decision deadline on the project was extended until June 1, 2009," wrote Amanda Sigillito, chief of the state's nontidal wetlands and waterways division.

Sigillito indicated MDE would not have enough time to adequately review the answers and information submitted by the county before the June 1 deadline.

As a result, MDE has extended the review deadline to Dec. 1.

"There were certain things we were not able to completely respond to, as MDE only gave us days in some instances," Beall said, Tuesday. "But our responses were fairly complete and extensive."

In January, MDE asked the county to provide information on six different topics related to the planned cross county connector; among those areas being changes in the county's stated need for the roadway and the effects on the local flora and fauna.

Without the approval of the state, and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the county has no hope of building a portion of the roadway through the wetlands.

Had the county not submitted its own questions and answers to the state by June 1, MDE could legally have withdrawn the county's application and requested a new submission.

The connector currently runs via four lanes through portions of Billingsley Road extending from Route 5 and stopping at Middletown Road in Waldorf.

The remaining three portions of the highway would need to be built over Mattawoman Creek, which has been the legal thorn in the side of the project.

Since July 2008, residents and Mattawoman advocates have lobbied local and state environmental agencies to press the county for information on the connector's effects.

The county is hoping its recent submissions to assuage these concerns will be enough to get the state's permission.

Among the requests was a survey on the endangered potato dandelion plant, which Beall said had just been completed at the end of May. The potato dandelion's existence in the wetlands had been emphasized by Jim Long of the Mattawoman Watershed Society, who requested a more rigorous study of exactly where the plant is located in the planned route of the connector.

The analysis of the field investigation is currently under way Beall said, and is one example of why MDE needs extra time before ruling on the building permit.

Beall said the county is likewise waiting for its own questions to be answered, specifically ones pertaining to a Tier II Antidegradation Evaluation, which is a classification that identifies the highest quality of Maryland water.

Bodies of water ranked at this level must legally be protected, Sigillito wrote in a January 2009 letter to Charles County.

Beall said the county's counsel sent Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler (D) a letter requesting clarification on the scope of jurisdiction and extent of interpretation of MDE when it came to the Tier II evaluation, and once that correspondence is addressed, the county can work to answer MDE's questions as quickly as possible.

Whether the state will rule in favor of the county's plans or the wishes of the watershed supporters remains to be seen, but environmental enthusiasts aren't taking the extra time for granted.

"I think it's neither good nor bad news, but simply part of the process," said Terry Cummings, manager of advocacy for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, of the June 1 decision. "It gives advocates a little more time to gain public support against the project."