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Connector foes propose options to planned east-west highway

Advocates stress environmental woes they say will arise

Friday, July 3, 2009


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Terry Cummings, director of advocacy for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, speaks Wednesday during a press conference about the cross-county connector highway project. The media event was held at the corner of Middletown and Billingsley roads outside Waldorf. In the foreground is an aerial photograph of the sensitive area where the four-lane road would be constructed.


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Staff photos by EMILY BARNES
Jim Long, president of the Mattawoman Watershed Society, hugs Meredith Sweet of Waldorf who spoke as a concerned citizen against the cross-county connector project after a press conference at the corner of Middletown and Billingsley roads outside of Waldorf. Long also spoke at the press conference Wednesday.

Local conservationists and area environmental groups met Wednesday at the intersection of Middletown and Billingsley roads to draw attention to the choices surrounding the crossroad and urge Charles County to responsibly handle the options surrounding the cross-county connector.

"This intersection poses a choice," said Jim Long, coordinator for the Mattawoman Watershed Society.

"There's a road that leads to more pollution and one that leads to a more sustainable alternative. It's not too late to protect Mattawoman Creek and ensure a prosperous future for the county."

The alternative Long spoke of comes out of a report from the Smarter Growth Alliance for Charles County, a coalition of environmental groups, which suggests moving future growth into priority funding areas and redoubling the effort to lay a rail system through the heart of Waldorf.

"We're here to make a constructive effort to throw out ideas on how we feel the county … should grow and prosper, and that it's done in a way where you don't need a road going through the watershed," said Terry Cummings, who is manager of advocacy for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

Long and Cummings were two of several advocates who stood in the hot sun to speak on behalf of what many watershed supporters believe is a direct threat to the sensitive area. Only yards away from the outer flora that protect the watershed stand orange signs and white fences that indicate a hiatus in construction of the cross-county connector.

"In the event that the connector is not built, developers will build a series of roadways to interconnect planned neighborhoods to create mobility, which would result in a haphazard and uncoordinated road network," wrote Charles County Commissioner Gary V. Hodge (D) in an e-mail Wednesday morning. "Billingsley Road would then remain an unsafe travel corridor for decades to come. This would do more harm to the environment than building a connector that is carefully designed and engineered to protect the creek and the environment."

The road was designed and planned with the goal of safely and efficiently connecting the eastern and western ends of the county, according to county officials. More than half of the road is completed; the final three phases between Middletown Road and Route 210 are awaiting approval from the state and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

According to figures provided in the alliance study, impervious surfaces worsen water quality by more than 10 percent, and Army Corps' projections estimate that by 2020 about 25 percent of the watershed will be covered in some sort of resistant material.

"We talk of ‘death by 1,000 cuts,' and unfortunately today, this is an example of a cut — multiple cuts," said Kim Coble, Maryland executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "Mattawoman Creek is one of the cleanest and most productive watersheds in the nation. The [county's] proposal reflects a 20th century way of thinking instead of a 21st-century vision."

One of the ways the growth alliance suggested the plan could catch up to modern times is by diverting future development to priority funding areas in the northwest tip of the county. These areas have already built infrastructure to accommodate growth and are recognized and financially supported by the state.

"We know and assume there will be growth in the development district. There's nothing we can do about that," Cummings said. "But there is enough capacity within the county's priority funding areas to accommodate and anticipate the growth within the county. There's lots of room to grow if our elected officials and planners are forward-thinking and look at this as an opportunity to move the county forward in a big way in the future."

But space isn't the problem when it comes to shifting development to priority funding areas, connector advocates warn.

"The state hasn't invested in the priority funding areas to the degree it needs to promote cohesive growth in those areas," Hodge said. "There are also landowners [in the development district] who have land use rights in that portion of the county."

Critics of the connector argue the new roadway will only serve to add another crossing to the more than half-dozen bridges already spanning Mattawoman Creek.

"There are plenty of ways to go east and west," Cummings said. "They are not going to replace Billingsley Road no matter what happens at that location."

Hodge countered with the question of how pristine the stream could be today, with roads striping across the waterway that were not designed with the protection of the environment in mind.

"The cross-county connector will not promote more growth and development than is already planned for this part of the Development District. With or without the connector, development will occur in accordance with the zoning already in place," Hodge wrote in his Wednesday e-mail. "The connector is an east-west connector road that will bind Waldorf and western Charles County more closely together and improve our intra-County urban mobility network."

As a 12-year Indian Head resident, Edward Joell spoke at the press event as a citizen who could potentially benefit from the connector. He said his first thought when he heard the plan, was "why?"

Having watched the problems with the Baltimore and Washington metropolitan waterways, Joell said he didn't want to see the watershed end up with the same fate.

The day before the Middletown Road meeting, county officials and representatives from local businesses and agencies attended a press conference at the Charles County of Commerce to speak out in support of the connector.

"The county has very good ideas, I believe, on how to organize the development district," said Del. Murray D. Levy (D-Charles). "[Opponents] who say they are not against development, just not here; that's not the end of the argument."

msomers@somdnews.com

To learn more

To view the complete alternative plan released by the Smarter Growth Alliance for Charles County, go to www.cbf.org/troubleahead.

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