Uneasy landing in Charles County Growth management: State's water decision may promote sprawling mega-development.

November 19, 1995

THE STATE'S approval of the use of ground water for the first 600 homes in a huge development along the Potomac River in Charles County begins a process that will likely lead to construction of 4,600 homes, a big commercial complex and a golf course over nearly 3.5 square miles.

That is why a broad coalition of environmental groups and homeowners has pitched a major battle over this first stage of the Chapman's Landing development, one that underlines the limits of the state's Growth Management Act.

While purporting to offer statewide and regional evaluation of growth areas, the law now appears to accede to the plans of individual counties. Charles County commissioners blessed Chapman's Landing, and state officials are loath to overrule that local decision.

Their basic objection is to the sanctioned spread of suburban sprawl, to the proposed loss of forest and wetlands and farmland, and the impact on notable fisheries. But the immediate question is the adequacy of underground aquifers for local well water supply. They claim the state should have made a thorough study of these water sources, which it now plans to do, before permitting the first withdrawal.

State officials insist the $1 billion project has been studied for eight years, and that previous surveys show the 800-foot-deep aquifer that the development will tap holds ample supplies.

In one sense, Chapman's Landing attempts to avoid suburban sprawl by building an entire planned, clustered community with infrastructure. Financing seems assured. The design will significantly reduce wetlands loss.

On the other hand, the 2,200-acre complex near Potomac Heights is planned as a suburban bedroom community for the Washington area, a plan that may well invite further, in-fill development along Route 210 into the capital. There are questions of how the developer will meet reforestation requirements.

Opponents decry the developer's unfair access to top state officials in easing the approval process. The development company argues it was unfairly delayed in getting justifiable state approvals, and threatened to sue.

In any case, this project need not define the Glendening administration's approach to future conflicting interests of economic development and environmental protection. Individual cases must be judged on their merits in the overall best interests of the state.

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