Decisions-Who said it was easy and simple!

Community Choices

A community’s elected leaders and citizens are confronted with hard choices and controversy when making land use and development decisions. Well, that’s what they signed up for. Yes, but nonetheless, it is hard with profound consequences.

Think about what the impacts are of approving or denying a new residential community, new office building, or another large commercial enterprise, expanding or building new infrastructure (water, sewer, landfill, highway, transit). Public engagement and social media add further churn to the process.

This post will attempt to provide a county perspective of the decision dilemma in the context of two recent front-page articles from my local newspaper. Source: Maryland Independent, Friday, November 8, 2019

Opposition and Issues

First – “Planned Homes Draw Fire over Increasing traffic”

san diego planning commission may 2020
San Diego Planning Commission

The County Planning Commission reviewed a next phase of a large mixed-use community, originally approved in 1970, totaling 1,900 acres,1.5 million square feet of industrial space, 25,000 residential units.

This next phase or neighborhood proposes 1,000 homes (a mixture of single-family, townhouses, duplexes) and village commercial center on 460 acres.

Public opposition focused on the following:

  • “Congestion, gridlock, that’s all you have in the county”
  • “We don’t have the roads, the schools to handle being built”
  • “How many more houses have to be built before residents decided that the impact on traffic was unacceptable”

It is interesting that the article continues on another page titled “SPRAWL”. Not sure that is not bias by the paper, but it does capture the public’s objections.

Second – “County Economic outlook bright, job growth slower”

Charles County Economic Development Department

The County’s Economic Development Department (EDD) has an annual fall event to report current and future prospects for economic growth. The November 2019 event focused on EDD’s progress implementing their 2015 Strategic Plan. While there is progress, the following issues have implications for future economic growth (now likey compromised by COVID-19):

  • Need for transportation options, other than roads
  • Improve the business climate – project reviews, permitting take too long, zoning cumbersome
  • Workforce development:
    • Boomers retiring, need to fill positions, but younger workers choose other locations for better pay, social environment, they can live anywhere
    • “Talent is the new currency”,” rebuild the talent pipeline by bringing in skilled workers into the county to live and work
    • “Now there’s your pipeline”- +-65% of residents commute out of the county to jobs

Approve or deny?!

The comments from those opposed to the project and economic development issues seem contradictory – too much traffic and development, but a need for educated, qualified workers to fill needed jobs in the county.

Decision-makers then fall back on policies from their various  Comprehensive and Strategic Plans for guidance. Even those at times are also at odds. 

  •  The 2016 County Comprehensive Plan:
    • Community Development –  policies and actions: Projection – Charles County is projected to add approximately 32,200 housing units between 2010 and 2040, a close to 60 percent increase over the total 2010 housing inventory of 55,000 units.
      • Policy – Provide a broad range of quality housing for all County residents, including those with low and moderate incomes.
      • Policy – Provide housing opportunities for the County’s share of residents who have difficulty competing for standard, market-rate dwellings.
      • Policy – Provide a balanced housing stock with housing opportunities for all residents Charles County will achieve a future county housing mix of approximately 80% single family, 15% townhomes and condominiums, and 5% apartments.
    • Transportation Policy:
      • Charles County’s highest transportation priority is the funding of the 18 miles light transit system


A community’s plans, policies, and strategies must be integrated with other government agencies ( i.e.Public Works,  Economic Development, and Finance/Budget) for consistency to meet the common sense test. County decision-makers can use their capital improvement plan (CIP) to implement the Comp Plan. This guides where and how to spend tax-payers dollars, getting the biggesst bang for tax payers dollars. 

  •   In the this instance, county policy is not consistent. If  there is a policy for diversified and affordable housing for 32,200 new houses in 20 years, how does that happen with another policy that states 80% single family, 15% townhomes and condominiums, and 5% apartments?  This limits diversity and choice! How can light rail, which  needs housing – density, be your top transportation priority?!
Relationship-of-Capital-Improvement-Plan-to-Other-Documents may 2020
Vicki Elmer, University of Oregon | UO · Department of Planning, Public Policy and Management
  • Need for better outreach to the community, including education about planning and development issues. A public hearing on a Monday evening (typically opponents show up), with a two-week notice, is not effective for citizens to really understand the project, its impact and then have limited time (3 minutes) to provide comments. The record may be left open for some additional time, but still inadequate. Many other communities have leveraged social media to implement project-specific and interactive websites, blogs and podcasts, (14 Online Platforms that Boost Civic Engagement, where the community is an active and ongoing participant, not just reacting at a public hearing. 
civic engagement word-cloud-community may 2020
Northern Virginia Affordable Housing Alliance
  •  A big picture view – the need for change, as COVID-19 has exposed frail infrastructure, unequal  health systems and delivery, supply chain disruption and the sense that our government has failed to lead and take the necessary actions. Now is the time for needed changes, but should be driven from the bottom up,the local community,  by those closest to the issues and problems


As written in an earlier post, I am hopeful we will see innovations and advancements to test new techniques to improve and sustain our communities. This is starting as evidenced by the “open streets” (Open Streets are programs that temporarily open streets to people by closing them to cars.) movement in cities around the world, climate change now more than ever in the forefront and the rise of farm to table food (Washington Grown) supply and distribution. Let’s hope the momentum continues!


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